This essay is based on my opening argument in a debate that I participated in on June 19, 2019. The resolution is that economic inequality is unjust and harmful, and I took the negative (disagreeing with the resolution) with my perennial debate partner, Chuck Braman.
The matter that we are discussing tonight, economic inequality, has been at the forefront of our political discourse for at least the last decade or so. It has been invoked to explain nearly every disaster and societal sore in the West, yet there is rarely any debate as to whether or not it is even really a problem in the first place. In this essay, I will explain why economic inequality in a free society is just.
Let us motivate the topic with a brief thought experiment. The characters in this story are somewhat exaggerated, but the approach that each of them takes to managing wealth is typical of many people in America today.
Consider two college roommates, Ben and Karl, who are both medical students. Suppose Ben studies hard every night, performs well on his exams, and foregoes opportunities to socialize so he can earn good grades. As a result, he graduates near the top of his class. After graduation, Ben performs well as a resident and joins a large hospital, where he rises to the top of his profession and makes a lot of money. After years of saving, Ben buys a beautiful home for his family and helps his children afford their college education.
Karl, on the other hand, parties it up with his friends and engages in wild alcohol and drug use. After he flunks out of school, Karl has to move back in with his parents, who grudgingly allow him to live rent-free. He gets a job at the local 7-11 as a cashier, but continues to drink and saves none of his own money. Eventually Karl’s parents, unable to deal with raising their son for the second time, ask him to get his own apartment, so he moves out. Karl ends up in a low-income, roach-infested apartment and spends his nights at the local tavern, complaining about how “unfair” it is that the “1%” get to keep their money. A commercial for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign airs, and in it, she calls billionaires “freeloaders.” Karl is lucid enough to note that this is a woman for whom he should vote so that things become more “fair.”
Now the first thing to ask about the story is: why did Ben and Karl end up in such different situations? The answer is that everyone is unique, each with their share of good and bad traits, and these differences lead to different outcomes. Ben was motivated and disciplined, while Karl was rudderless and lazy; the result is that Ben ends up more successful than Karl.
You can see this phenomenon in your own life. Consider the people that you interact with daily, whether they be at home, at the office, or on the subway. Are these people equally honest? Are they equally good at running restaurants? Are they all equal basketball players? Are they equal parents? Is each as good as saving money as the next?
The answer is no, people differ in nearly every respect from one another, and it is these differences that serve as the basis for how they do in life. In other words, the causes of a person’s wealth, or lack thereof, are unequal across the population. Therefore, it is no surprise that in a relatively free, division-of-labor society, people end up with different amounts of wealth.
This principle is especially evident when we consider those that produce great fortunes. When Sam Walton created Walmart, for example, he created a company that offered high-quality goods at affordable prices for people at all income levels and revolutionized the way that supply chain management is done. He was an exceptional entrepreneur.
When Steve Jobs created the iPhone and Bill Gates created Windows, they introduced vast technological improvements that increased the productivity of workers in nearly every industry, from medicine to secretarial work. Jobs and Gates were exceptional engineers and designers.
When J.K. Rowling created the Harry Potter series, she improved the standard of living for both parents and their children; the former because they got to see their children want to read and the latter because it provided them with a fantastic fictional universe that expanded their imaginations. She is an exceptional author.
These men and women are all billionaires, and they deserve to be because they created enormous value for a large number of people. When I exchange my money for groceries at Walmart or an iPhone or a copy of the Goblet of Fire, wealth inequality rises, and yet I am no worse off. Neither is the company that sold me the product. In a voluntary transaction, such as those I just listed, both participants expect to benefit. The result is happy customers and a wealthy businessperson. There are no losers in this arrangement.
The exceptional people are the ones that make modern society possible, and it is just for them to keep the rewards they receive for producing. Furthermore, it is unjust to demand, as our opponents do, that people who are unequal in their ability to create wealth be treated as though they were equally able to do so so that those who produce more are compelled to subsidize those that produce less. One cannot expect unequal causes to result in equal results.
Now I want to return to the story I opened with about Ben and Karl one more time and ask another question: what would it take to “equalize” Karl and Ben?
Since Karl’s flaws are based on his attitude to life, and only he can fix them, the only way to achieve equality between them is to hamper Ben’s success. One could force Ben to pay for additional schooling for Karl, or perhaps the government could cap Ben’s salary. The most direct approach would be for the government to take money from Ben and give it directly to Karl in the form of monthly checks.
Regardless of which method you employ to achieve your ends, the “solution” will involve penalizing Ben and rewarding Karl. Ben’s property rights will have to be violated to prop up Karl. Once this occurs, Ben and Karl will no longer be equal before the law. And this is the crucial truth about the campaign against inequality: it is incompatible with equality under the law.
In the United States, we have a legal system based on a principle which states that all individuals have rights and that the role of the government is to protect those rights, including property rights. Equality before the law is the only valid sense in which my partner and I are advocates for “equality.” Any other arrangement results in the sacrifice of the Bens to the Karls.