Inequality has been talked about so much that it can be easy to forget why it matters. Today, it’s seen as one of the defining issues of our time even by the plutocrats at the Davos conference. Their particular worries may spring mostly from self-interest (see venture capitalist Nick Hanauer’s warning to his fellow one-percenters that unless they got serious about economic inequality, the pitchforks would soon be coming for them), but there are plenty of people whose opposition to inequality is sincere and principled. Millennials, with their infamous tendency toward socialism, are often fairly bitter about a system in which so many languish in the gig economy while a few others get to fund their own private space program.

Yet there are some serious arguments that opposition to economic inequality is misguided. Steven Pinker, in his new book Enlightenment Now, makes the case that inequality itself does not matter, and that people should stop talking about it so much. Pinker claims that inequality is “not a fundamental dimension of human well-being” and that “an increase in inequality is not necessarily bad.” He admits that economic inequality has been growing, but argues that it is wrong to see this as a “counterexample to human progress.”

Pinker’s argument is as follows: people mistakenly conflate inequality and poverty. But they are not necessarily linked. We can imagine a world in which there are five people, four of whom have a million dollars and one of whom has a billion dollars. There is a great deal of inequality in this world; after all, one person has 1000 times the wealth of the others. Yet nobody is actually poor. Correspondingly, greater equality does not necessarily reduce poverty. Pinker tells the story of two destitute peasants. The only difference between them is that one has a goat while the other doesn’t. One day, the goatless peasant is granted one wish by some magical being. “I wish that my neighbor’s goat would die.” The killing of the goat makes the peasants equal, but it makes neither of them better off. Pinker says that one of the greatest equalizing forces in history has been war: if our village is burned to the ground, we all become equally homeless. This proves, he says, that there is no inherent value to equality.

It’s easy to object to this, as some have, by suggesting that however fascinating it may be theoretically, in practice it is irrelevant. If the correct focus is not strictly on “making everybody equal” but “making poor people less poor,” then it’s still valid to criticize rich people for getting richer in a world where there is considerable poverty. If I say “I don’t like how much inequality there is in the world,” Pinker would reply “Actually, clearly that isn’t true, because you wouldn’t want a war, would you? What you don’t like is poverty.” Here, in exasperation, I could say “Okay, fine. My problem is not strictly with the ratio between people at the top and people at the bottom, but with the fact that some people have very little while others have a lot, i.e. it’s not that you have 10 times more than I have but that I have nothing and my life is hard while you have everything and your life is easy.” The point here appears pedantic: since there is poverty, and we don’t all have millions of dollars, it doesn’t invalidate criticisms of the existing distribution of resources.

But Pinker is ready for this objection. He wants to show not only that inequality and poverty are unrelated in theory, but that actually our highly unequal society is doing a very good job of eliminating poverty. As inequality has grown around the world, absolute poverty has been decreasing. The rich may be getting richer, and they may be getting richer far faster than the poor, but the poor are steadily getting richer too. Pinker points out that today’s poor people have cell phones and fridges, and invokes the cliche about how today’s poor would be the envy of rich people in 1910. Pinker criticizes the “fallacy of the pie,” the idea that the world’s wealth is like a pie being divvied up, so that if I get more, you necessarily get less. This is a fallacy because the size of the pie is not “fixed” or zero-sum: I can get more and you can get more, because together we can make a bigger pie. Everyone wins!

Pinker also concludes from this that we shouldn’t blame rich people for poor people’s poverty: the “natural” state of human beings is poverty (since we are all born naked and hungry), so it’s not that rich people have stolen something that poor people had. Pinker cautions against the human tendency to attribute all suffering to malevolent forces. The rich are not to blame for the plight of the poor: because wealth is not zero-sum, my wealth is not a cause of your poverty. Furthermore, the rich’s gains are not ill-gotten: Pinker invokes Robert Nozick’s argument for the legitimacy of extreme wealth disparities: if I am say, J.K. Rowling (Nozick’s original example used Wilt Chamberlain), and millions of people give me small amounts of money for the pleasure of reading my books, in what sense have I profited unjustly?

These arguments in favor of inequality are simple, and I see why they are tempting. Pinker is not the only one who has made them; his basic framework is that of Harry Frankfurt in On Inequality, and similar points have been made by the Ayn Rand followers Don Watkins and Yaron Brook in Equal is Unfair. The conclusion that these arguments lead you to is somewhat radical: essentially, there is no injustice inherent in capitalism. Certainly, we have a moral obligation to relieve poverty, but capitalism actually does that very well, having steadily improved people’s living standards over a period of centuries. While redistributive policies may be justified as a way to eliminate absolute poverty, because relative deprivation doesn’t matter, poverty alleviation in, say, the United States is not a particularly compelling cause. After all, even John D. Rockefeller didn’t have a cell phone. This framework implies that once people around the world have achieved some basic standard of living (free of, say, starvation and disease), there’s very little that’s troubling about having a tiny number of billionaires controlling the majority of the world’s resources, while everyone else owns comparatively little. (The fact that Enlightenment Now simultaneously frets about poverty in the developing world and justifies/exonerates U.S. billionaires may be one reason why Bill Gates has called it his #1 favorite book of all time.)

I say that the arguments have “radical” implications because they do more than just rationalize the status quo. They could also be used to justify an overtly feudalistic system. Let’s imagine a lord who owns a manor and the surrounding properties, which are worked by peasants. The peasants own nothing themselves and must give most of what they produce to the lord in exchange for getting to work the land. The lord lives in splendor, despite having done no actual labor. His wealth grows through passive capital income. The peasants live hard lives. They do not have plagues or poxes (the lord even pays their health insurance, because it’s not in his interest to have sick workers), and they do not starve (the lord wants strong workers). But they mostly just work and subsist, with a bit of recreation here and there. Their standard of living is improving slightly year by year: because they get to keep a percentage of what they produce, as they innovate new ways of producing more, they get to keep more as an absolute. But the lord’s wealth is growing much faster.

If we accept the Pinker/Frankfurt inequality framework, there is nothing unjust about a feudal society in which one person does no work and keeps the vast majority of the wealth, while others do all of the work and keep hardly any of the wealth. The lord would make exactly the same arguments that Pinker does: we should not think of wealth as a pie being divvied up, because while my standard of living is growing far faster than yours, your standard of living is still growing:

“You think your lives are hard,” our lord says to the peasants, “but compared to the peasants of 100 years ago, you are extremely comfortable. You have stoves! They didn’t have stoves. As an absolute matter, you are doing well and constantly improving. And because relative wealth has no moral significance—after all, if we burned my manor and all the fields, and reduced me to your level, I would be worse off, but so would you—there is nothing unjust about our arrangement.”

Once we apply these arguments to the feudal scenario, we can see more easily what is objectionable about them. What matters is not whether the people at the bottom are improving relative to their previous state, but relative to the state that they could be in if the economy were arranged differently. If I have my boot on your neck, I could slowly reduce the pressure and tell you your situation was improving, but the question is not “Is this better than before?” it’s “Is this as good as it could/should be?” We shouldn’t assess the condition of American poor people today by looking at the condition of American poor people during the 1700s or the Great Depression. Instead, we should assess it relative to their potential condition. People a long time ago may have had much worse teeth, but the reason it’s unjust that the American poor don’t have dental care today is that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. It’s avoidable misery. If we adopt Pinker’s analysis, then the 19th century robber barons, and our feudal lord, could simply show their miserable workers a line graph proving that their condition had improved over generations, and there would be no moral problem with one person living in a gilded palace while child laborers work 12-hour shifts to produce that person’s wealth (“Hey, we used to make them work 14!”). But the reason it’s objectionable is that there’s no reason it has to be this way. A different distribution of power and wealth could make life easier for the people at the bottom without making life substantially harder for people at the top. Unfair deprivation is therefore neither a matter of absolutes (“if you wouldn’t have been poor in 1920 then you’re not poor”) nor a strict wealth ratio with the rich, but is about whether all people are flourishing to the degree that they could be if society allocated its resources differently.*

Let’s imagine that our boat is shipwrecked, and the 9 survivors are split into three groups, clinging to various pieces of flotsam. The first group of 3 arrives on one island, the second group arrives on another island, and the third is missing, presumed dead. Group 1 sets up a form of government akin to Soviet Communism: all pigs are equal but some are more equal than others. One individual establishes a rather nasty totalitarian government that rules over the other two using brutal coercive force. Group 2, on Island 2, ends up like the society in my children’s book Libertarian Island: nominally, there is no coercive force, but one individual happened to come across and monopolize a food supply. He doesn’t force the other two to do anything, but instead offers to feed them if they will act as his servants. This is how capitalism works: nobody is making you do anything, but if you don’t sell your labor, you will perish and suffer. Gradually, even though one person rules over the others through his greater control of resources, the standard of living for all improves. Pinker, the lord, and John D. Rockefeller would all make the same argument: look at the two islands. One shows communism, the other capitalism. Under communism, everyone is equal but not really, and the standard of living stays low. Under capitalism, there may be inequality, but people are getting better off all the time. Isn’t capitalism great? How can you criticize it? But then we find out what happened to the members of Group 3: they landed on their own island and managed to establish a genuine egalitarian society. It’s not that everybody was the same, but they followed the “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” rule: everyone contributed as much as they could and was given as much as they required. Some people ended up with a bit more here and there, but because people weren’t servants or slaves, and were all given an equal chance to fulfill their potential, they innovated together and expanded the collective wealth of the island over time.

The argument that libertarian socialists have always made is that we do not face a choice between Islands 1 and 2, and the existence of greater brutality Island 1 doesn’t serve as a justification of the slightly lesser brutality on Island 2. You don’t measure against what is or what has been, you measure against what could be. So it’s not enough to do what Pinker spends countless tiresome chapters doing in Enlightenment Now, and providing chart after chart showing that people are better off now than they used to be. You would also have to provide a persuasive explanation for why it’s impossible not to have democratic workplaces and universal prosperity. You can’t just show that something is “better than it was,” you have to show that it’s “as good as it could have been,” otherwise all of the objections stand. (Most arguments for sweatshops take the form “but it’s better than being a peasant farmer,” assuming that a world in which people toil in neither factories nor cane fields is inconceivable.) The leaders of Island 2 do everything they can to convince us that Island 2 is inevitable and The Best We Could Have Done (even if, like Pinker, they promise continuing progress in the future).

By paying attention to “what could have been,” rather than what is or has been, we can see why the argument that “My wealth doesn’t cause your poverty” is false. My wealth is a direct cause of your poverty, because I could alleviate your poverty at any moment I chose, and have deliberately decided not to, just as the government’s decision to have, say, a flat tax rather than redistributing my wealth to you is a decision that results in your continuing to be poor. It might be true that my slice of pie can grow at the same time as your slice of pie, because some new innovation increases the aggregate amount of wealth, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as “distribution.” The amount of pie at any given time is still distributed across individuals, and if you have less it’s because I’m not giving you any of mine. “Poverty has no causes,” Pinker quotes, but it does, the most obvious of which is the set of decisions made by governments and the wealthy about what to do with wealth. If you want to get all Marxist about it, the poor would be less poor if they didn’t have capitalists yoinking away their surplus value. (You can also reject this notion of causality and still not share Pinker’s idea that the wealthy are not to blame for continuing poverty. Even if you agree with him that “poverty has no cause,” that doesn’t mean those who could fix it but don’t are blameless. If I could tell you that you’re about to step in front of a train, but I don’t, we can argue about whether I caused your death, but either way I’m an asshole.) 

Pinker says that a belief that the rich have too high a fraction of wealth is based on the “lump fallacy,” “the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource, like an antelope carcass… so that if some people end up with more, others must have less.” “Wealth is not like that,” he says, because it grows exponentially. But this is no different from our feudal lord saying that because the aggregate amount of wealth on the estate is increasing, it’s a “fallacy” to speak of wealth distribution. You and I may be rice farmers, and we may make more rice each year than the last, but that doesn’t mean there’s no distribution of rice between us.

We do have to be careful not to assume that if you’re getting more, I’m necessarily getting less as an absolute, but it’s important to pay attention to how the product is distributed percentage-wise, because the manner in which the product is distributed is the source of a lot of the aforementioned “avoidable miseries.” Every dollar that goes to the CEO is not going to the workers, even if everyone’s salaries are creeping up, and what critics of inequality object to is the fact that so much wealth goes to those whose “marginal utility” from each additional dollar is very low, rather than those for whom it is very high. As an executive, I don’t need really need a fifth jet-ski, but as a worker, you could really use some money to get your car fixed. And even if both of us are working hard (i.e. I’m not a loafing Koch-heir living on capital income), wealth should go to the people for whom it will do the most good. And that’s true even if both of us have fridges and Medieval peasants didn’t. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” shows why extreme wealth is objectionable: all of it is wealth that isn’t going to its best use; problems are occurring that could be avoided if rich people would just give poor people some of their money.

Like many who seek to justify concentrated wealth, Pinker invokes Robert Nozick, with the J.K. Rowling example: how could it be unfair for someone to amass billions through book sales? First, this is deliberately choosing the easiest case rather than the hardest one: Rowling’s books are Rowling’s work in a way that, say, the materials produced by a mining company are not the work of the company owner, who may never even have seen the inside of a mine. Questions of exploitation arise when my unequal wealth and power allows me to conscript poor people in order to do work that I then profit from while keeping them poor. Using Rowling as an example is an intentional effort to portray entrepreneurs as creating their companies solely through their own effort the way an author writes a book. But that doesn’t describe the situation that has led to historical objections to inequality. Instead, we are dealing with cases in which ownership and control of an enterprise is vested in one party, while another party does hard labor without receiving any stake in the enterprise or control over its direction.

Second, as Current Affairs has discussed previously, whether it was unjust for Rowling to be given a big pile of money is separate from whether it’s just for her to retain it. Likewise, whether I bought a life preserver, stole it, or was given it as a Christmas present is a separate question from whether I am obligated to throw it to a drowning person (and whether it would be morally justified for a third party to take it from me and throw it if I refused). 

There is an important additional sense in which wealth is zero-sum, i.e. if I have more you necessarily have less. To see why, let’s think about voting: in our “democracy,” I get a vote and you get a vote and everyone else gets a vote (unless they are a felon or a minor or a resident alien, in which case they get “taxation without representation”). Now, let’s say there are four people in our little democracy. If, instead of getting one vote, one person gets four votes, we no longer have a democracy, because that person can simply outvote everybody else every time. Even if they only have two votes, they have a disproportionate amount of power to everybody else, which means that their preferences carry more weight, even if they feel those preferences less strongly. It would be impossible, or at least functionally meaningless, to multiply everyone’s votes. If everyone had twice as many votes as before, we’d be in the exact same situation as we started in. Giving me “more” doesn’t actually necessarily translate into anything, because it’s relative power that matters, not absolute numbers of votes. I may think I’ve gained quite a lot because I have been given fifty more votes, but if you have been given 150 more, I may actually have less in practice even as we all appear to have more.

There are plenty of senses in which wealth does not necessarily operate that way. As Pinker points out, if my salary doubles and yours triples, I might be able to buy one new fridge and you can buy two, but we all have more. Yet there are other senses in which wealth does work this way. Sometimes money acts like a form of “social voting,” i.e. bidding to have my preferences carried out. I once wrote a “puzzle for libertarians” in an attempt to illustrate how in one sense, the distribution of wealth is also necessarily a distribution of power, because of the abilities that wealth confers on its possessor. I imagined an astonishingly wealthy man who can spend whatever he pleases. And what he has decided to spend it on is trying to ruin your life. Because he has wealth, he can do that: he can buy up your favorite places and demolish them, he can buy Facebook and Twitter and stop you from communicating online (again, he’s astonishingly wealthy), he can buy your workplace and fire you, and buy every other business that employs people with your skills, and refuse to hire you at any of them. Everything he does, he does without resorting to government coercion, using purely free-market mechanisms. But because money is power, an unequal distribution of money is an unequal distribution of power, and this man has a disproportionate ability to create the kind of society he wants to see. You, without money, have no similar ability.

This is another reason Pinker is wrong to suggest that the wealth of the rich is irrelevant to the situation of the poor. It’s not just that that wealth could be redistributed. It’s also that having wealth means having certain abilities, and ratios of wealth do matter in determining who wins “bidding contests” for certain social outcomes. (The astonishingly wealthy man also buys up all the known supply of a life-saving drug and refuses to give it to anyone who doesn’t indenture themselves to him for life.) Being in the class of people who can hire labor, rather than the class of people who must sell their labor, can be a matter of ratios: in my Libertarian Island scenario, the person who controls access to the food supply has the absolute power to get people to do his bidding or starve, and that’s true even if their standard of living is consistently going up because he is providing them with more each year.

Watkins and Brook, in Equal Is Unfair, attempt to show that “economic equality” can be separated from “political equality.” The kind of equality envisioned by the Founding Fathers, they say, was political equality: the rule of law applies equally to all, everyone has a vote except the people who don’t, etc. But they never meant to create economic equality. Wakins and Brook say that this is exactly how it should be: the law doesn’t favor one person above any other, but it’s fine for some people to have a lot more wealth than other people. They are certainly right that this is how the Founders thought of equality (with the exception of Thomas Paine, not coincidentally the best of the Founding Fathers), though they may overstate the degree to which “political equality” was seriously believed in. Even in arguing for greater democratic participation, Thomas Jefferson advocated that a “natural aristocracy” should govern.

Yet it’s impossible to have political equality while there is economic inequality. Every person may be “equal before the law,” but if one can afford to hire an army of lawyers and the other can’t, then courtroom disputes will never be equal. If I own a news network or social media website, and can use them to push my political views, while you work 12-hours a day and don’t even have time to stand holding a picket sign, our equal status as voters with First Amendment rights doesn’t mean much in practice. The most obvious way in which economic inequality prevents political equality is in campaign contributions and lobbying. But even if you could pass campaign finance reforms that gave all candidates public funding, it would still be true that people like Bloomberg, Soros, and the Kochs have unique power to get their voices heard. There can be no real political equality without economic equality, because of the function money has as a form of social power, and saying that “all are equal before the law” in a world with billionaires in it is like saying “everyone gets his day in court” when some people can hire the Dream Team while others get the Alabama public defender. (Economic equality is also not enough. Social equality, i.e. the elimination of caste-like social hierarchies, is also important. We could have a world in which everyone has the same amount of money but socially elite preferences still rule. Likewise, you could eliminate the black-white wealth gap and still have African Americans disenfranchised.)

I understand why some people get nervous about the word “equality.” It can imply that everyone has their possessions taken away, and rationed out by the government. But what libertarian socialists have consistently emphasized is that they seek economic equality as a way of equalizing power rather than equalizing possessions: it’s not that we should all have to wear the same coat, it’s that we should all get to participate in deciding what our workplace is like, and we should all get an equal chance to live on the beach and have pleasurable experiences and do meaningful things with our lives. Equality can imply “sameness,” e.g. the enforced regime of physical equality in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” in which talented dancers must carry heavy weights to even things out. Equality in this sense does seem arbitrary, destructive, and unfair. It can’t be your only value, because the quickest way to make everyone equal is to make everyone dead. But the belief in equality doesn’t come from a spiteful desire to see my neighbor’s goat die so that he can suffer like I do. It comes from a moral instinct that it’s unfair when some people arbitrarily get to exercise power over other people, and that if we all contribute to prosperity, we should all get to share in it. The socialist hatred of capitalists comes from the recognition that there’s no need for some people to break their backs while others live on private islands. It’s not resentment of wealth, it’s the belief that everyone should have to pitch in, and that how much you get shouldn’t depend on what circumstances you were born into.

Here, some people will try to draw the distinction between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome.” The general liberal line on equality has been that while nobody believes in equality of outcome (which leads to the Soviet Union/Harrison Bergeron), everyone can reach consensus on equality of opportunity. We don’t want every child to be a doctor but we certainly want every child to be able to be one if they make the right choices. This philosophy can justify quite a large amount of wealth inequality, because so long as everyone has the opportunity to get rich, the existence of wealth disparities themselves is unobjectionable.

Because it sounds like a happy compromise between dystopian enforced equality and the unfair “lottery of birth,” equality of opportunity has become a popular aspiration. It suggests a true meritocracy: being born poor doesn’t matter, because you can still be rich if you try. Equality of opportunity is the American Dream, and that’s what liberals say in order to pitch the concept to Dream-worshiping conservatives. Unfortunately, the opportunity/outcome distinction is an impossible one to maintain. That’s because opportunities are necessarily passed down between generations, and because “starting people off in an equal position” is just as impossible as the Harrison Bergeron attempt to equalize talents. If we all started at birth with the same families, each with the same wealth, and we all had the same genetic makeup in the same places with the same childhood friends with the same amount of luck and accident befalling us, then it might be meaningful to speak of equality of opportunity. We might be able to attribute the resulting differences in outcome to differences in “merit” (whatever that is). But even then, this would only work for a single generation. You and I might have had the same opportunities and achieved different outcomes. But our differing outcomes become our children’s differing opportunities. Even if the billionaire achieves her wealth through a fair, equal opportunity process, the billionaire’s children have all the advantages conferred by money. In order to provide meaningful equal opportunities, you constantly have to be resetting and adjusting unequal outcomes. The way to give a poor child an equal opportunity to the rich child is by making the poor child’s parents less poor, i.e. adjusting outcomes. If you’re unwilling to repeatedly fiddle with the distribution of resources in order to ensure they are going to their best use, over time you may well produce a caste system.

There is no perfect equality, just as there is no perfect justice or perfect marriage or perfect city. And you can’t build a worldview around it alone. But it’s an important aspiration to have, because feudal societies conflict with a core sense of what’s fair, and without a commitment to some form of equality, it’s unclear what there is to criticize about libertarian feudalism. The impulse that leads us to value political equality, which even the Ayn Rand acolytes share, is noble, but once we recognize that there’s no obvious dividing line between politics and life, equality has to become a value in all spheres. If we believe in one-person, one-vote in government, we should believe in it in the workplace and social relations, too. That doesn’t involve flattening all of our differences. But it does involve rejecting theories that justify the concentration of power in the hands of a tiny number of people, and ensuring that societies aren’t just “better than a series of horrible alternatives” but are actually places where everybody is prosperous, free, and equal.

*Pinker does believe societies have greater potential because he wants the statistical arrows to keep going up; he insists he is not a Dr. Pangloss because he doesn’t believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. But what he does appear to believe is that we live in nearly the best possible world we could have made by now. We can see this in the way he discusses historical injustices: “One can imagine an alternative history of the Industrial Revolution,” he says, in which “modern sensibilities applied earlier and the factories operated without children and with better working conditions” but we should still celebrate the good parts of the Industrial Revolution. Note the way this description implies that the Industrial Revolution’s cruelties were pretty much unavoidable: perhaps they could have been avoided, but it would have taken “modern sensibilities,” which by definition they didn’t have. The problem here is that over the centuries, there have been people with these sensibilities, who have spent their lives trying to make the world less cruel, and trying to get people to be outraged by injustice. And those people have always been opposed by those, like Pinker, who suggest the dominant attitude should be one of gratitude and caution. The best counterargument to “Enlightenment Now” is Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which scathingly criticizes the white moderates who insisted they believed in progress but always insisted that it needed to be incremental.