Politics. Economics. Morality. Religion. And Everything In Between.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Inequality

"We hold these truths to be self-evident-that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"-- so says the Declaration of Independence. I say, however, that the first of these truths is NOT self-evident. In fact, I would go even further by saying that it is plainly self-evident that human beings are NOT all equal, and in many cases, this inequality is permanent and inherent.

One of the most readily apparent ways in which people are unequal is in physical stature. If any of you were wondering, I am 5'11" tall and weigh 175 lbs. Without taking steroids or HGH or putting on a ton of fat, that's basically as big as I can get. I will never be huge and powerful enough to be an NFL linebacker no matter how much I would like to. People also differ in intelligence. Over the past 100 years, scientists have established that the vast majority of a person's mental capacity is fixed by the time they reach adulthood. Depending on the study, anywhere between 50 and 80% of a person's "g-factor," or general intelligence, depends on pure genetics, and most of the rest is unalterably biologically determined by environmental factors such as nutrition and exposure to harmful chemicals in childhood. You can train your brain to be more efficient, but you are still limited by the brain you have.

Human beings exhibit a wide range of variation in respect to nearly every measurable characteristic. Some don't reach five feet, while others (many of whom are in the NBA) exceed seven. Developmentally disabled folks have IQs in the low to mid double digits, while the IQs of our greatest scientists may approach 200. The differences between the most and least gifted individuals in any area are staggering, and in a relatively free and open society such as the U.S., these differences are a big reason why some people possess ridiculous amounts of fame, wealth, skill, and power and others seem to fade into the background.

Average CEO pay in the United States this year was $9.2 million, or roughly 20 times the median household income. Many attribute this disparity to the "greed" of corporate executives, but these people are missing the point. There are a lot of very greedy people out there who are also very poor. Just because you want a lot of money doesn't mean you'll get it. New financial regulations gave the shareholders of publicly traded companies a chance to vote on their CEOs' compensation packages, and 98% of the time, they voted to approve it. The shareholders did this because they believed that their CEOs generated MORE than 20 times as much value for the company as the average employee did, so by paying their CEOs 20 times as much, they would still be making money. If they cut their CEOs' salaries, these CEOs might quit and force the company to make due with a less effective leader.

Like the shareholders of those companies, I believe that it is in OUR best interest if we allow the monetary value of someone's work to be determined by those who make use of it. In this way, we reward those who benefit us in proportion to the benefits they provide and thereby encourage others to follow in the same path. If we were to let Congress or some other independent group set the maximum pay for anyone in any industry, fewer extremely talented people would work in that industry, and those who benefit from that particular good or service (basically everyone) will suffer.

At the same time, though, we must realize that all people, even the most distinguished, are limited by the human condition. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett may be filthy rich, but they still don't have infinite resources. Usain Bolt may be faster than any other human being, but he still can't outrun a horse, much less a cheetah. Furthermore, the difference between a cheetah and Usain Bolt is greater than the difference between Usain Bolt and the slowest humans. Everyone, from the greatest to the least among us, is born, grows, prospers, fails, suffers, rejoices, loves, hates, and eventually dies. We should neither worship any man as a god nor demean anyone as a slave. Rather, we should organize society in a way that rewards the variety and brilliance of human ability without allowing those whose talents allow them to amass wealth, power, and influence to use these abilities to dominate others.

The modern West is currently failing on both counts. The mainstream media vilifies as robber barons people who have earned a great deal of money though honest means while hailing those who wield troubling amounts of political power as saints. "The masses" clamor for jobs but shriek and moan when the government threatens to cut their entitlement benefits to free up enough money to let the private sector create the jobs they desire. We cannot claim the rights of men while lining up to be fed like livestock at the government trough. I admit that, in many cases, people cannot earn a decent living because a crafty few have been able to monopolize the means of production in their industries by extracting beneficial regulations, subsidies, and tax exemptions from politicians they have co-opted. Before we call upon people to take responsibility for their own lives, we must give them the means to do so. Our government must end its unholy alliance with multinational corporations whereby the upper classes are kept as wage-slaves to their employers and the lower classes sell their votes to populist politicians in exchange for free education and health care. Only after we have done this can our society assume a state of pronounced yet mutually acceptable and even just inequality.


  1. I enjoy reading what you have to say, but I strongly disagree with the way you start. You could have started the post in a way that did not challenge a position that, as it is used in context, is unassailable, at very least one which is unassailable by a Christian. Thomas Jefferson was not trying to say that all of us are perfect clones of each other. Rather, he was clearly saying that we are all equal insofar as we are humans endowed with equal dignity by our Creator. I realize that you know this as well, so I would encourage you to be more honest in your analysis of such a famous and widely accepted line, especially since you have otherwise been so clear and honest almost unfailingly.

  2. I meant by my controversial opening statement to draw attention to an aspect of the Declaration of Independence and of American political thought which is NOT the unassailable position most people think is articulated in the Declaration of Independence's second paragraph. It is true that the signers of the Declaration believed that when Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal," he meant equality before God and the law, not equality of material possessions or of physical, mental, and artistic prowess. I believed, however, that Jefferson had been co-opted to a limited extent by the thought of the French Enlightenment and by the radical egalitarianism of the French revolutionary movement, and that when he wrote that "all men are created equal," he meant it literally. In adding this phrase to the Declaration, I believed, Jefferson was surreptitiously attempting to undermine the position of his fellow signers.

    Since writing this post, however, I have revisited my source (Freedom and Federalism by Felix Morley, an excellent book that I would recommend to all readers of this blog), and I am ashamed to say that I read it incorrectly. Morley states that Jefferson didn't develop a taste for French political philosophy until he traveled to France after the American Revolution. Therefore, he could not have meant what I thought he did in the Declaration of Independence. I will amend this post to reflect my new-found understanding of this situation as soon as I have time.