Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Income Equality Moral?

During a recent conversation, income differences between the rich and the poor was mentioned as a problem. Looking at the US Census Bureau data (table F-1 at this link), from 1947 to 2008 the income of the poorest quintile in the US has increased 108% vs. the income of the richest quintile, which increased 194%. So the questions I ask is: if my income doubles, what does it matter if my neighbors' income triples? Is it really important that everyone’s quality of life rises at the same rate?

Personally, I think Steve Jobs or the Google Guys should make a ton of money for their amazing innovations – as they benefit a lot of people, and those people freely give their money to them in exchange for the benefit they see for their own life. But why do so many of those same people (the ones benefiting from iPods and Google) then want to take a significant percentage of that money back in the form of taxes? What do you think is the moral justification for taking back money that was freely given to someone else that benefited your life?

No one I've spoken to seems comfortable with the idea of directly taking money from another person just because that person has more money than they do. Yet most people seem comfortable with the idea of electing an official, who then takes that money (in the form of taxes) and spends it on their behalf (in the form of public services). Many will argue that it's for "the public good" and that everyone has a vote, but then I think of all the horrific acts (e.g. the Inquisition, Stalin's or Mao's purges, the Holocaust, etc) that were often perpetrated by parties voted into power and most often carried out under the guise of the "public good". It seems to me that the "morality of a society" is just the morality of its participants - which can be reflected in the officials they elect and the acts they condone, either by active participation or silence...


Burgess Laughlin said...

Another way to approach a discussion of the subject of income inequality is to challenge the unstated or partially stated premise: Equality (of condition) is good.

Is it? Why? -- and so forth.

A synonym that many egalitarians use is "fair" (fairness, etc.). That can be explored, defined and challenged. Those who claim that fairness is the standard for evaluation carry the burden of proving why it should be the standard.

Of course, objectively, the standard should be justice not fairness.

The Ayn Rand Lexicon has entries for Justice and Egalitarianism.

Joseph Kellard said...

Here is something I wrote about this issue of income inequality:

Gaia said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Burgess and Joseph!