Saturday, April 8, 2017

People prefer fair inequality over unfair equality

I have long been deeply skeptical about the measurement of income inequality, the practical implications of normal levels of inequality, and the motivations of those driving the inequality debate. The evidence that, within normal bounds, inequality has any negative consequence to societies or individuals has always been meager and mixed. The various measures of inequality are highly nuanced but used bluntly to suggest implications which are not true. The most succesful economies and societies with the highest levels of productivity also tend to have higher measured inequality, even though everyone is demonstrably better off than those countries with low inequality (and low productivity.) But the motives of those waving the inequality flag are the aspect of the debate that are hardest to grasp.

Those most keen seem to be academics who could easily pass as a gramscian skirmish line for authoritarian central planners. They want you to believe in inequality in order for you to surrender your freedoms to their dictates. It seems an ideological argument. On the fringes there are certainly some morally honest advocates. And there are plenty of the nomenklatura who simply want to palm some of the wealth as it is redistributed. Overall, though, the moral argument for tackling inequality as a social problem has seemed clouded and unclear.

Why people prefer unequal societies by Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom sheds some light in the murk. From the abstract.
There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness.
An interesting paper with several good sources and data. This summary - people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality - is at the heart of the tension between free people and the vested interests with their hands on the authority of the state. Most citizens want a fair system, even if it yields unequal results. Most authoritarian determinists (media, academia, entertainment, permanent state) want an unfair system which yields equal results (as long as they, the vested interests, are exempted.)

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