So this isn’t so much a note on anything in Piketty per se, but rather some thoughts in answer to one of the objections that inevitably comes up as soon as the subject of inequality is raised (in particular, this arises out of a recent exchange on Facebook). You are no doubt familiar with the line of objection: “Why does it matter so long as everyone is benefiting? If the poor guy sees his income double, and the rich guy sees it go up tenfold, then the only possible reason for complaining must be envy.”
Of course, there are a zillion things that could readily be said in response to this objection. For one thing, inasmuch as it’s being used as an ad hominem against whoever is bringing up income inequality (which is shockingly often), it’s a bit bizarre: after all, if person A is complaining about person B having more than himself, well, there might be envy going on. But if person C is complaining about person B having more than person A (but not about person B having more than himself), then whatever’s going on, it sure doesn’t seem to be envy. For another thing, there’s actually all kinds of other possible reasons, pertaining to the bad consequences that many see flowing from inequality, which will in the end make life more difficult for the poor guy, despite his immediate material improvement. These can all be explored in due course. But for now, I want to get to the heart of the objection, by asking, “Suppose the concern is inequality per se—in abstraction from various injustices that may have led to it, and various social ills expected to follow from it. Is there an immediate and inherent problem, and if so, is it distinguishable from sinful envy?” I.e., let’s assume that if you doubled the poor guy’s income while increasing the rich guy’s tenfold, the poor guy would, not long after he got over his initial glee, start feeling quite unhappy, perhaps even more unhappy than before. This, I think, is a plausible assumption. Is there any way to characterize his unhappiness besides “envy”?
This is a question that requires some rather careful attention, and I have no intention of trying to sift through it thoroughly here. But I wanted to think out loud, as it were, about some often-overlooked aspects of this question. This question assumes that the biggest problem facing poor people is sheer material lack. I should note in passing that this is a somewhat odd assumption for conservatives to make, given that in many other contexts, they can be seen complaining that it is progressives who make this assumption, and that simple government transfer payments to the poor, while improving their material situation, don’t really help them. In any case, leaving aside the inconsistency, is this a valid assumption? Well, certainly at the very lowest levels of poverty, it is. If you and your village are facing starvation, and suddenly someone comes along and gives you all meals and jobs, but gives some villagers jobs paying ten times as much, well then (abstracting from consideration the problems this might create later on) you have obviously addressed the biggest problem, and everyone will be happier than they were when they were starving.
But once we get above the bare material subsistence level, the picture begins to change, I think. If there’s one thing I learned from Polanyi (and in fact, I learned quite a few, but this is the biggest one), it’s that human beings are above all social creatures, not economic ones. I suppose I shouldn’t have needed Polanyi for this, but should’ve paid attention to Aristotle. But in any case, the point is, we’re not animals, concerned just with material provision, but are above all concerned with relationships and what they mean for our place in the world (in fact, come to think of that, neither are animals—if you watch something like Planet Earth, you’ll find that about half the struggle in the animal kingdom is for food, and the other half is for “social status” in the group, usually to secure mating privileges). Again, when the chips are down and we’re desperate for survival, these social concerns are usually thrown to the winds and it’s every man for himself trying to stay alive; but that’s not the way most of life operates. This much most people will probably concede pretty quickly when you point it out, but more has to be said. Not only is the material side of life not all there is, but even it isn’t primarily about the material, or at least, increasingly ceases to be the more there is to go around. Rather, material wealth does have an objective functional value, relating to its function in providing food, shelter, transportation, comfort, convenience, etc., but it also has a subjective, largely socially-constructed, symbolic value, signifying what kind of person I am, what sorts of things are important to me, what social circles I walk in, and which ones I very much do *not* walk in. I buy nice furniture for my house not because it’s necessarily any more comfortable or functional than that shabby old couch from my bachelor days, but because to have that shabby couch in my living room would send the wrong social signals. The wealthy lawyer in New York City buys a BMW convertible not because he plans to drive on the Autobahn, or because he expects to be rolling the roof down very often, but because it signifies his membership in a particular elite sphere.
Now, some of this social valuation is obviously sinful, and is exactly the sort of obsession with status that we are called upon as Christians to forsake. And yet, it is not obvious to me that all of it is automatically so—i.e., that I should keep on carting around that shabby couch as long as it’s functional. Because we are social beings, and we value friends and relationships, we should value the kinds of material signifiers that communicate our participation in those social groups, and that make it easier for us to pursue common activities with others. We should always beware of drawing our social circles too narrowly, so that we only associate with those like us, or of putting too much value on these signifiers, forgetting just how ephemeral they can be. But an interest in, say, the social value of a good wine collection, in due moderation, is no more sinful than an interest in the taste of fine wine, in due moderation.
Now, all that said, what are we to say about the poor? Well, let’s start with an extreme example to make a point. Let’s say you took a “middle-class” American tradesman from the early 18th century (say a blacksmith or a carpenter who made a decent living), and transplanted him into modern-day America, and gave him a good supply of food, including an array of fruits, vegetables, and meats not available to him before, and even gave him a toilet and running water (albeit unreliable and of poor quality), but did not give him a car, electricity or any electronic devices, a phone, etc., etc. Would he be better off or worse off? Happier or less happy? (Leaving aside the general difficulty of cultural transition involved in time travel) I think we could pretty reliably answer “worse off” and “less happy.” Why? Because he would suddenly have been demoted from a respectable middle-class tradesman to the poorest of the poor, socially cut off from almost everyone else and unable to participate in the sorts of activities that most everyone else participated in. To pick a less extreme example, consider the technological changes over the last 50 years, which mean that even today’s poor often enjoy things like a color TV, a microwave, and a mobile phone, which the wealthy wouldn’t have enjoyed fifty years ago. If someone today only had a small black-and-white TV, it would be the signifier of extreme poverty, and thus, despite the fact that materially he might be no worse off in this respect than someone fifty years ago, he would have the stigma of being considered very poor. Or, to pick another example that has plenty of real-world analogues, consider that primitive village I mentioned above, only this time, they’re not starving. They’re doing ok. They’re primitive, to be sure, and they don’t have much surplus, but everyone has a hut and a small plot of land. If you came along and gave 10% of the villagers ten times as much wealth, and gave the other 90% twice as much wealth, I suspect the 90% would be less happy. Because all of a sudden they would have been made socially inferior, a much greater loss than their extra spending power. Is this envy, in a sinful sense? It could be, but I don’t see that it necessarily is.
Now, the solution to all this is of course not complete equality. After all, the very notion of social signifiers implies different social levels which are defined in part by differential wealth. We’re generally fine with a decent hierarchy of different wealth levels, so long as they’re not so different that the rich and the poor (or even the rich and the middle class, as we find today) are in totally different worlds. It is out-of-control inequality (in which the top 1% own 350X as much per capita as the bottom 50%) that threatens to disrupt the social fabric and result in people feeling increasingly degraded, even if they are, from a purely material standpoint, better off. Likewise, we don’t view all inequalities as equally problematic. To the extent that they are obviously connected with merit, we’re fine with them. If some guy comes up with a great invention that makes us all better off, we recognize that it makes sense for him to profit richly from it, at least within reason. This is because his wealth does not threaten to disrupt our world of social signification. We see his wealth as a signifier of the benefits he has brought us, and if he uses his wealth well, we’re not bothered by it. But to the extent that inequalities are arbitrary (i.e., in the thought experiment intended to illustrate envy—I arbitrarily double your wealth while increasing the other guy’s tenfold), wealth simply signifies, “This person is now better than you” and thus hurts the person at the lower end. (As well, I should add, as hurting the person at the top, because we all need one another, and to be walled off in the company only of your elitist friends is to leave a socially and morally impoverished life.) To be sure, if none of us were sinners, this wouldn’t matter, because the beneficiary of extra wealth would take no pride in his higher position, would not use it for selfish purposes, and would continue to treat the folks lower down as deserving completely equal respect, while they, in turn, would rejoice in his good fortune. But just because something wouldn’t be a problem in a perfect world doesn’t mean that, to the extent it is a problem, that’s a sign of personal sin.
Again, none of this is to say that envy doesn’t exist, or isn’t a real problem. But we routinely make distinctions between selfishness and legitimate self-esteem or concern for personal well-being, between neediness and a legitimate desire to be loved, between pride and a legitimate satisfaction in having one’s work appreciated. In all of these areas, we recognize that we are creatures defined by our social affections, and while these affections can very well be inordinate, they are also proper and irrepressible features of our human nature. Why then can’t we do this for inequality and envy as well? Why do we assume that our social affections here are completely out of line?