We’re bombarded by endless kvetching about rising inequality, plus demands for draconian taxation to fix the problem. The complaint has been raging for years, despite highly suspect data claims and fuzzy measurement techniques.
I’ve always had doubts that rising inequality, even if true, would even be a problem, simply because in a market-driven economic environment, it takes nothing away from me that the guy across the bar is a billionaire and I’m not. Chances are that he is providing jobs, donating to charities, and boosting investment in the capital structure that actually benefits all of us.
A society of equality in deep poverty is easy to achieve with enough force.
But let’s examine this claim at a different level. What exactly are we measuring here? The Gini coefficient measures income across population groups, which is very different from measuring consumption. Already here we have a major problem in a growing economy in which the same amount of income buys ever more goods and services.
As a practical matter now, the poor today live better than kings of old. If the goal is to better the lot of everyone, measures of material equality actually distract from the main goal of universalization of dignified lives.
Material vs. Knowledge
Let’s take a deeper look at the core assumption that material wealth is what should be the measure of equality. Another form of wealth concerns the information to which we have access. In some ways, information — the opportunity to access it and the capacity to contribute to humanity’s stock of it — is far more important to our lives than material wealth.
Information is the building block of culture. It provides a roadmap to success. It helps us live better lives.
Where do we stand with information sharing, the distribution of the most valuable commodity? There has never been more access. Access to what? To what the whole of humanity has learned and knows. (I owe this insight to a passing remark made to me by Lotta Moberg at the Philadelphia Society.)
I’m sitting here at an airport where people are waiting for planes. Every single person is using a tool that is a portal to all the world’s information, and many of them are likely adding to that information pool right now. This is happening despite income disparities, accidents of birth, or even income. The points of access and the price of that access – free for the most part – has dropped in price to the point that no person is excluded.
It’s true on the streets, at the mall, at restaurants, everywhere you look. Ninety percent of Americans have internet access, and three-quarters have a smartphone. This is a record, and a trend driven by deregulation and market forces. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
It’s also brought more equality to society.
Consider the contrast with 30 years ago. What we knew was controlled only by those who had privileged access. They were writers of books, the journalists published in magazines, and the people on the few television networks, and their communication with us was one-way. We could not talk back to this elite. They talked and we listened. Our capacity to contribute was limited to sharing with people only around us, unless we wrote letters delivered after a long wait via a government employee.
This reality is within the living memory of most people alive today.
Isidore of Seville in the 6th century set out to assemble all the world’s knowledge in a single book. The result was the Etymologiae. It was the project of a lifetime. It became the essential book of learning during the whole of the middle ages. Only the privileged few could have access. Mass ownership of books wasn't really possible until the 19th century.
The Age of Knowing
Now we are all carrying countless expanded versions of the Etymologiae in our pockets. That same tool offers the power of television, not just as consumers but as broadcasters, to everyone. We can access every course at MIT. The portals of information are overwhelming to us. We can play games and communicate peer-to-peer with anyone who has Internet access. Even turning on our television gives us instant access to many hundreds of stations. The information explosion in our lives is so vast it is impossible to describe.
Crucially, it is not just for the elite; it is for everyone, and this is because it was made possible by a market ever in search of the next customer base.
In terms of information access and the opportunity to learn and share knowledge, we’ve never been more rich and equal. We share what we know, learn from others, and experience a never-ending rush of data crucial to living a good life. We are drinking constantly from what F.A. Hayek called the “fund of experience” — an analogy to capital theory in the physical world. It is the means by which the whole world and the whole of history can benefit from the success of one single firm or one innovator, provided the means are there to share that knowledge.
“The free gift of the knowledge,” he wrote in 1966, “that has cost those in the lead much to achieve enables those who follow to reach the same level at a much smaller cost.”
Hayek offers this extremely insightful observation on the value of information:
The growth of knowledge is of such special importance because, while the material resources will always remain scarce and will have to be reserved for limited purposes, the uses of new knowledge (where we do not make them artificially scarce by patents of monopoly) are unrestricted. Knowledge, once achieved, becomes gratuitously available for the benefit of all. It is through this free gift of the knowledge acquired by the experiments of some members of society that general progress is made possible, that the achievements of those who have gone before facilitate the advance of those who follow.
Do we see the champions of equality celebrating this remarkable achievement? I’ve not seen it at all. Instead, the terms of debate seem to have shifted entirely to an exclusive and maniacal focus on material income as the sole source of wealth.
It’s even worse than that. We’ve never had more access to other ways of thinking and living, new cultures, languages, and human experiences. The opportunity for discovering and adopting has never been more voluminous. And in the midst of this extraordinary flood of information outside of our narrow experience, we are being told that it is wrong and even deeply immoral to “appropriate” other people’s experiences and learn from them in a way that is operational in our lives. To do this is considered “cultural appropriation,” as if it is a form of theft.
It’s a remarkable claim, and a deeply anti-intellectual one. You cannot steal a culture. Culture is not a scarce good. It is available to everyone to “appropriate.” To attack our freedom to learn and be influenced, to call it unethical to discover and live in a different way, is to cut off chances of progress. It’s a fundamental attack on the biggest source of wealth we now enjoy in society.
So you can see here that in the way the Left has rigged this game, there is no way that freedom can win the debate over equality. You point out that information is the most valuable good and that there’s never been more of it, and they say this doesn’t matter. You point out that culture has never been more accessible, and they say it is wrong to consume it and be influenced by it because that would be theft.
The critics of the market economy who invoke equality as an ideal cannot and will not be satisfied until they crush every last opportunity for everyone to live a good life.
Here we are living in an age of unprecedented abundance of the most valuable goods, available to everyone regardless of life station, and instead of celebration and appreciation, we see the opposite: endless kvetching about narrow materialistic concerns of only fleeting relevance to the quality of life everyone hopes to experience.