One of the more distinctive features of the universe is that it is unequal. It is unequal in the sense that it is not one mass of undifferentiated goo. It has differentiated features, starting with the distinction between inanimate and animate matter. A lump of coal is quite distinct from a squirrel even though at the most basic level, both are collections of atoms, each atom a composite of protons, neutrons and electrons–which reduces to two types of quarks and electrons.
In this essary I consider the matter of inequality and what it implies about the human condition and what therefore are its normative implications.
What’s technology? I define technology broadly as “know how” — the knowledge of how to do something. The products of the technology have “know how” embodied in them. Every human artifact and process of production is, in that sense, a technology product. How to convert ore into metal, how to communicate using writing, how to transmit information using wires, or wirelessly, how to build a transistor, how to put 21 billion transistors on a tiny silicon chip, how to build a commercial jetliner starting from materials that are provided by nature, … ad infinitum.
Technology has made ordinary human life unimaginably better compared to, say, just a couple of centuries ago. Think of the advances in modern medicine and the understanding of diseases; of the immense productivity increases in mining, manufacturing and agriculture; in mathematics and the sciences; in computation and communications; and so on. Technology has allowed the earth to support billions of people at a level of comfort that was beyond the wildest optimistic imaginations of our ancestors. Technology has provided the steps for humanity to climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
But technology has also increased inequality.
Increasing inequality is an inescapable feature of the universe, not just of human society. From a cosmic viewpoint, the universe started off extremely equal. Some time after the Big Bang, the entire universe was uniformly filled with energy, and was isotropic. Later the energy condensed into particles, and then into hydrogen. That was the start of the inequality. Greater inequality followed with the formation of stars, and galaxies.
From the very beginning, there’s been an increase in inequality. You will have equality once again if the universe ends in a heat death. Who knows. But the universe is interesting because it is not at either end of its life, and is in a state of inequality. There’s inequality not just in the non-living world, but more strikingly so in the living world.
Inequality of Life
Let’s consider the inequality of life on earth. There wasn’t much inequality when life arose as single-celled organisms. With increasing size and complexity of life, inequality grew. Today we have millions of species — all of which are strictly unequal by definition. A blue whale (137,000 kgs) is 65 million times more massive than a humming bird (0.002 kgs).
Human civilization itself is tightly bound with inequality. As hunter-gatherers, people were generally equal. The very best could probably hunt and gather maybe ten times as much stuff as the worst. The strongest human could probably lift ten times more than what the average human could. The wealthiest emperor of the past would have had a very comfortable life but nothing compared to what the average person in the world today.
But now, with the push of a button, one man can destroy humanity. Any billionaire today has more wealth, both in relative and absolute terms, than any of the richest people of the past.
The fact is that there’s been a monotonic increase in inequality in the natural world, and in the human world. And it will only get more unequal. The story of civilization is a story of a monotonic increase in inequality.
Inequality of Development
We need to understand what William Easterly said in the context of economic development — “Development is unequal. Get used to it.” Technology has made the world less equal and that inequality will increase with time.
But — and here’s the important point — the increase in inequality does not necessarily mean that some people are falling behind in absolute terms. All can — and indeed do — advance even as the gap between the leaders and the laggards increases. For me, the first concern is whether anyone is worse off now than they were in the past. Thankfully, the answer is no.
Absolute poverty bothers me, not inequality. It does not matter whether the poorest person’s wealth is a billionth of the richest person’s wealth; what matters is that the poorest person has sufficient wealth to live a fulfilling life. In short, I value general prosperity that makes the poorest better off even at the cost of increasing inequality.
Inequality and Prosperity
Confining ourselves to the two dimensions of economic inequality and prosperity, we can ask how are the two related. Are they orthogonal? That is, they are independent of each other, and if that is so, can we choose any value we wish of the two independent variables. If they are not orthogonal (that is they are linked in some way), what combination of values are possible, and what freedom do we have to choose among those?
Let’s consider a limited number of states:
- Low inequality and high prosperity
- High inequality and high prosperity
- Low inequality and low prosperity
- High inequality and low prosperity
I value high prosperity over low prosperity, and low inequality over high inequality. Therefore I value states 1 and 2, over states 3 and 4. Furthermore, I prefer state 1 over 2, and state 3 over 4. In other words, I rank 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 and would choose accordingly if I had the choice.
To illustrate the point, I would prefer to have an income of $200K and the rich have an income of $200M, rather than I have an income of $10K and the rich have an income of $20K.
The question is then: do we necessarily have a trade-off between inequality and prosperity? Perhaps there is a trade-off and you cannot have the best of both, that is state 1. Perhaps the best you can do is choose between 2 and 3: where only the value of one variable is to your liking and not the other.
If there is no trade-off, then we can simultaneously have low inequality and high prosperity — that is state 1 — if we wish. My conjecture here is that there is a trade-off. Meaning, if you wish to have high prosperity, you are necessarily forced to also have high inequality. The argument for that will have to wait for now. That will depend on the mechanism we use to achieve high prosperity.
For any given level of prosperity, we should be concerned more about the absolute level of prosperity of the lowest segment of the population than the relative prosperity between the rich and the poor. My position is that as long as no one is destitute, I don’t care how rich the rich are.
I will explore the implications of inequality in the next bit.
- This post was motivated by a comment that Ameet Deshpande posted to the most recent AKA. I expect to address the several points he raised in his comment in later posts.