Government Enforced Inequality

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98 Responses

  1. david says:

    The organized use of force creates segregation and genocide at a scale that anarchy cannot.

    Regrettably, it seems fair to say that anarchy creates the organized use of force.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to david says:

      David, I agree. I think anarchy is a disequilibrium condition, while the organized use of force is an equilibrium. Fortunately the totally authoritarian organization of force is not itself an equilibrium. Unfortunately, I’m not yet certain the democratically organized use of force is, either.Report

  2. Kimmi says:

    Government… because of food surpluses??? Sorry, cart’s in front of the horse again.

    The primary problem with agriculture isn’t “who gets the food” it is “How do we stop overpopulation”
    Fucking’s far more of a problem than some people seizing power — he sees government. I see religion, systems that create eyes looking over people’s shoulders, and morality.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kimmi says:

      Your first sentence is underdeveloped. I have no idea what you mean.

      As for religion, Diamond thinks the priestly class developed as an adjunct to the power of the surplus co-opting state, as a way to justify it and cow the masses. Pretty Marxist, but I think he’s probably right.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

        Marx was pretty poor about predicting the future. his past stuff was at least decent. And I’ll grant that theory is decent enough.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think he’s right in the sense that’s the role it fulfilled. I don’t think this was an inevitability.

        Mixing church and state was always worse for the church than the state.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Pat, I’m not sure it was bad for the church as much as it was bad for faith.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley says:

            The church is the faith. The rest is the trappings of the world. Mixing church and state put quite a bit too many trappings all over the faith.

            But I’m digressing. Good post, James. I’ve been pretty fond of all the ones that have come out so far, actually. We should do this more often.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Wow, that first sentence could start a whole symposium of its own. I’ll limit myself to noting my respectful fisagreement.

              I agree with liking all the posts so far. I’m still chewing over yours.Report

  3. Kimmi says:

    In a world absent government, I am able to enslave you against your will only if I am able to be continually vigilant and deny you any opportunity to escape. If I fail, you get away and have the opportunity to make a better life for yourself, or at least give your children the chance for an improved life.

    hahahaha. you only think you can get away.

  4. Morat20 says:

    Government is power. So is money. So is land. So is guns.

    Take a look at company towns — or some of the stuff major corporations do in countries with no functioning government. Abuse of power isn’t limited to government. And a lot — if not pretty much all — of the those potentially abusive entities will care even less about you than representative democracy does. Oftentimes a LOT less.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Morat20 says:

      Morat, I was afraid this would be the response. I never said abuse of power was limited to government, but you are quick to imply I did, and thereby avoid actually having to give any real consideration to the problem of government created inequality. Please address what I did say–is there any error? Is the problem false, or not worthy of consideration?Report

      • Morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        There’s lots you can do, lots that should be done.

        After all, wasn’t the United States’ own formation a response to an abusive government? (And it’s formation as a more powerful government after the demise of the first as insufficiently so for actually working).

        You shouldn’t be “afraid” that this is a standard response — heck, you should probably highlight it. Because while you might consider it a given (government is abusive, yes, but we settled on it because it’s so far better than anything else we’ve tried, how do we make it less abusive) that’s not actually a given out there in the real world.

        Especially not among libertarians. I’m simply not comfortable talking about “abuse of government” without first noting that government is, in fact, nothing special in that regards — and was itself a response to abuses of power.

        But yeah, your whole slavery example is pretty laughable. Slavery exists just fine without government — all it takes is numbers. It doesn’t take police and courts.

        I mean, come on — surely you’re aware of human trafficking? Sexual slavery? Things that exist here and now, despite being blatantly illegal — actively hunted and opposed by government?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        But you seem comfortable talking about the abuses of the market without first noting that it is not special in that regard. I doubt you ever pause in a debate about the market to say, “well, let’s not forget that gov’t does shit, too,” but your very first response when the subject is gov’t is, “but the market…”. I don’t mean to be unfair, but it sounds to me like you really want to avoid having to face up to the problems of gov’t. Cetainly you employed a redirection technique here that I haven’t seen a liberal employ when the issue is the problems of markets.

        Again, why can’t we talk about this? I’m interested in a liberal’s actual consideration of the issue, not an avoidance of the issue. And that avoidance is the response I was afraid of getting. The only reason to highlight it is to imply that liberals won’t engage–that’s not what I actually would like.

        As to slavery, please re-read what I wrote. Nothing you say about it contradicts what I said.Report

        • Morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

          You mean other than me pointing out the existance of slavery without “government complicity”? (Something you said can’t happen?).Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Morat20 says:

            Except that I did say it would happen sans gov’t. We’d have a more productive conversation if you’d respond to what I said, rather than what you assume I’ve said.

            And after you’ve read me accurately, please tell me, is the current extent of slavery in the U.S. (which does exist) greater or lesser now than when the government supported it? How does human trafficking compare in countries that that don’t support it compared to those that at least tacitly support it? In a world of true anarchy (which I am not advocating), would it be harder or easier to punish people who helped runaway slaves?Report

  5. Nob Akimoto says:

    The problem is a fundamental one, in so far as material inequality only exists when ownership rights are actually given recognition, and that recognition hedges on the existence of government. Arguably, there’s no inequality in a material sense if there were no government and we were limited in our ability to enforce our will upon what we could see.

    If we’re going to go in this direction, then inequality is in the end, a matter of power disparity. Institutions that aggregate humans, whether economic, political or even cultural exist to create power disparities by concentrating the power of individuals into a collective. If there’s been one project of the liberal order over the past two hundred years, it’s been to erect barriers to the use of concentrated power over individuals with less power.

    The question of course is whether or not we’re still in that process. I’m not sure we are. We’ve turned tools that were used to defy old concentrations of power into tools that are used to create new concentrations and extend them. I can elaborate on this a bit, but essentially, I’m not sure if there’s any “original” mechanism of power defusion like constitutional government, labor unions, economic regulation, market economics, non-state actors remain that haven’t been coopted as a measure of power concentration itself today.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Good points. But from the perspective I’ve outlined, I’d guess the natural prediction would be that efforts at such co-opting would be inevitable. Given enough efforts over enough time, and maybe success is inevitable. Sigh.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

        It’s kind of depressing to think about…

        And as market scales get larger, the need for larger entities to govern certain aspects of them increases. Government tendency to hoard power gets magnified with scale (IMO, though there are greater institutional barriers at the same time) which in turn makes enforcing global inequality easier.Report

  6. BlaiseP says:

    Oh Lord. It’s the Hunter-gatherers again. Hunter-gatherers never fared well. Their modus vivendi kept their numbers small. They did have food surpluses of a sort, as do all carnivores, game stored in vast hunting territories. These they would viciously defend. Their governance was highly formal, as rigorous and binding as a captain’s authority aboard ship or a modern passenger airliner.

    Hunter-gatherers were reasonably benevolent, rather more benevolent than the societies which rose in their wake.

    There are documented cases of solidarity and care to weaker subjects e.g. the case of the mandible with no teeth found at Dmanisi dating back to 1.7 million years ago and a Neanderthal at Shanidar with multiple fractures in the clavicle of the upper right arm.

    Someone was feeding a toothless member of their clan. Someone was setting a broken arm and feeding the injured person while he recovered, and it happened multiple times.

    Hobbes explains how all this happened. Not the Nasty Brutish and Short bit everyone knows. Hobbes observes people want to live in the context of binding law and there’s nothing more efficient than a dictator. Plato covers all this too. There’s no hostile takeover: the ancient cities were centred on their marketplaces and centralised power meant citizens were safe within the city walls.

    Genocide is not the exclusive province of government. A lion will kill the cubs of his predecessor. Nor is segregation the exclusive province of government. That’s cultural, too. Endogamy is segregation, care to argue that point? It’s also bad genetics, but freedom of association remains enshrined in law where Plessy v. Ferguson hasn’t.

    We regulate industries because it makes economic sense to do so. For all that stipulation about how New York requires a course in finger curls, clearly you don’t understand how difficult that stunt actually is or the chemicals required to do it. A finger curl is to cosmetology what handmade puff pastry is to cooking. Having a couple of daughters does teach an old man about these things.

    This is an excellent regulation. If only we could get software engineers to submit to certification, it would be a better world entirely. I grow tired of looking at resumes submitted by incompetents and liars. I do not want to climb into a cab in Chicago only to find the hapless driver does not know his way to O’Hell Airport. If you do not like the medallion system, a few rides in Lagos jitneys will change your mind on this subject.

    No, James, given the choice between the tender mercies of the markets which tell me “Caveat Emptor” and the horrible old government, which for all its faults and failing promises me “Equal Justice Under Law” I shall go with the government. I have seen the alternative.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Blaise, your first paragraph is just utterly erroneous. There’s a lot of literature on this issue. Once upon a time I did a hell of a lot of reading in the anthro literature, and it all comes from there. I’m afraid I’m going to have to rely on the peer-reviewed lit, not on what you tell me.

      As for medallions and knowing the way to the airport, the two are 100% unrelated. The medallion system is about limiting the number of cabs, not about ensuring quality drivers. I can vouch for that from experience–my cab company had medallions, but I didn’t know my way around central San Francisco (Twin Peaks area) to save my life, and boy did I get some heat fron passengers for that. But even if it did, I’d rather have to give a cabbie directions than be stuck in the rain unable to find a cab.Report

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    You missed a huge one, arguably the biggest: National borders.Report

  8. Kazzy says:


    Do you think at least part of the issue people have seeing the reality of government created/enforced/perpetuated inequality has to do with the timeline(s) in which people are evaluating the situation? Because to me it seems obvious that government is just as likely to be a force for bad as for good when it comes to inequality.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

      Sorry, missed this comment earlier. I’m not sure just what you mean by timelines. My interpretation is that you mean they are looking at an extant market-caused problem, so naturally they look to government? Maybe, but then why the resistance to looking at an extant government-caused problem and naturally looking elsewhere? (But maybe I missed your point entirely.)

      My gut take on it is a reluctance to experience cognitive dissonance. We know the market causes problems, and the only realistic alternative is government. If we think seriously about government causing problems, then the only realistic alternative must be….the market? Which we already know causes problems? Fuck, what do we do now? Where do we turn?

      It’s easier to live with our pleasant mythologies than to grapple seriously with the thought that we just might be seriously fucked whichever way we turn. But refusing to grapple with it doesn’t diminish whatever truth value it has.

      Humans tend to be like that. It’s a lot easier on our psyches. Extreme free market types who are unwilling to recognize that markets do fail sometimes are no different, really.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        By timelines, I meant that people tend towards a myopic view… people in favor of government as a solution to inequality look at the Civil Rights Amendments and say, “SEE HOW WELL THAT WORKED?” They ignore that the Civil Rights Amendments were necessary because of what the government had been doing up to that point. Their timeline for evaluating markets versus government as the solution to inequality starts in 1965. Or where ever else is convenient.

        However, now I must ask you… is “the market” and “government” the only two places we can turn? Do we risk creating a false dilemma if we limit ourselves to those two options?Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:


          OK, I get you. It could be. I honestly don’t know, because I honestly don’t understand those types of people.

          As to your other question, not really. There is a third option, which is voluntary non-market-based cooperative organization. Small scale self-governance. E.g., a church group that takes care of its own, a neighborhood watch, etc. Those tend to work well at the small scale, but are very difficult to scale up as coordination problems increase with size, exponentially probably.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

            Hm. My running theme throughout this series is that inequality, especially the type that we are seeing, is a problem and one that I believe is a result of flaws in both the market (which I really think is to say flaws in people) and the government. However, I think most government solutions are more problematic than the problems they seek to solve, either pratically, princibly, or both. Ideally, the solution will come because people of their own volition will “do the right thing”. Unfortuntately, there are too many social and cultural pressures to do otherwise. Many of these are borne out of norms that aren’t inherently bad (e.g., American culture’s emphasis on independence versus Japanese culture’s emphasis on interdepence) but carried to an extreme end can lead to a “culture of greed” and so on. I don’t believe you can legislate this, at least not in any of the ways most folks propose. At this point, I fear we just have to hope folks start saying, “Ya kow what? There is a better way to do this…”Report

  9. Michael Drew says:

    Why does it follow form a libertarian perspective that there is nothing wrong with wealth or income inequality or rising wealth or income inequality? Or, if you’re not saying that it necessarily follows from a libertarian perspective but just from yours, why is there nothing wrong with wealth or income inequality or rising wealth or income inequality?

    I’m not arguing that there is something wrong with it, but given that this was the question around which we decided to frame the entire exercise, I was hoping that when we got direct answers to it (and kudos to you for offering them), I was hoping some reasons for why those answers are correct might be included in the deal (not that I can claim to have not gotten my money’s worth out the Symposium already).

    Again, not because (as I made clear previously) I think there is necessarily something wrong with … that …, but just because I’d hoped that coming out of it, we could have a clear understanding about why we should think there actually isn’t, if that’s what we think, rather than just saying we don;t really know (which is where I’ve always been at, and why I don’t have an entry for the series).

    …I suppose for that matter, it’s actually still a question in your essay why there is there something wrong with inequality of opportunity (or at least why you care about it) when there isn’t anything wrong with the other types mentioned? Are there any other other kinds of inequality that there might be something wrong with?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:


      Fair questions, but I have to go slap some salmon on the grill, then get back to some house painting. Let me ponder hoe to answer in less than another full length OP, and I’ll get back to you.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        Just noting them – take your time. It would be very cool if you could say that the salmon was caught on your camping trip, but either way, don’t forget to oil the grill top. 🙂Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Yeah, well… I went camping in Indiana. Canoed down the Hoosier state’s most beautiful stream, but there’s precious few salmon in the Mississippi River Basin.

          Oil the grill top? Uh, oh. I just put some spices on it and slapped it on the grill skin side down. Did I do wrong? I know we have several serious hobby chefs here, so it’s with great trepidation that I ask that.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

            Salmon just sticks is all…Report

          • I always pan-sear or bake fish- never grill.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

              Baked salmon is where it’s at.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Both of you, explain. I like salmon, and should cook it more often. So I have a need to know.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

                Obviously, if you like what just came of the grill, no reason not to keep it rolling.

                But here’s what I do with salmon:

                2 steaks (one for me, one for her), 2 inches wide each

                8×8″ Pyrex baking pan.

                (optional: oil bottom of pan – h/t me)

                preheat oven to 450 (can go hotter for glazier finish on fish, but have to watch to not dry it out)

                -place steaks side-by-each in pan

                -generously grind fresh pepper over steaks

                -thin slices of butter along top of length of each steak –

                -more pepper on top the butter

                -squeeze fresh lemon over fish – 1 half for each steak – you want ample liquid in bottom of pan when done

                -cover with alum. foil

                – bake covered for 5 or 10 minutes depending on desired int. meat temp

                -bake uncovered for 5 minutes to glaze butter-pepper crust (Can go all uncovered for more glaze, but covered time infuses fish with butter-lemoniness via steam action. This is where the art lies for those of us who want all three: infusion, glaze, AND nice medium/mid-rare interior. Haven’t hit on exact right temp & timings for that yet.)

                – serve w steamed asparagus & boiled red or gold skin-on potatoes (butter, salt&pep, parsley)

                – nice baguette & preferred cheese if you want a bit more carb, nice mix-greens salad if you want a bit more vegReport

              • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                …actually, not at all sure i don’t typically go hotter myself – 475 probably. Sometimes just low broil, even. You want it to cook fast and hot.Report

              • James K in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Thanks, I’m going to have to remember that.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Thanks, I’ll try that next time (except I may grill the asparagus…mmmmm).Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Grilled asparagus are where it is at. But you can achieve a similar effect in the oven at roughly the same temp as your fish (probably slightly longer time). It is almost a one pot meal. Impress the lady (or gentleman, to others) with baked salmon partnered with nicely charred roasted asparagus in a matter of minutes with a very simple cleanup.Report

              • Salmon is an oily fish, and the grill tends to dehydrate or dissipate oil, whereas cooking in a pan tends to preserve the fish oils. I like my salmon oily, so I prefer to bake it or cook it on the stove top. The reason I like to pan sear at as high a temperature as my stove will produce is that I like the full range of done-ness this technique produces. Put some sort of sugary glaze like a honey mustard on the outside of the fish (this helps to “blacken” the outside), crank up the heat on the stove, let the fry pan sit there until it glows red, open all the doors and windows of your house, put the fish on for thirty seconds, flip it over, thirty more seconds, take it off and eat it while it’s still hot. The center should be at room temperature and raw, and you should be able to see the full gradient from raw to burnt to a crisp through the fish.

                White fish I’ll rarely put on the grill just because it’s rather delicate, and I like the control a fry pan allows for. Swordfish or tuna can be nice on the grill sometimes, but again I’d rather pan sear to preserve the oils and keep the inside as rare as possible. This is especially true with yellowfin, probably my favorite fish.

                I’ve tried some other varieties of tuna and mako shark on the grill before and really enjoyed them, but it’s required that I cook them a bit more than I’d like to otherwise. Mako tastes terrible cooked anything less than medium, so it’s best to mark the shit out of it on the grill IMHO.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                Mako = delish! Plus it feels badass to eat a shark. Take that, nature!Report

            • I’ve grilled shrimp on skewers and had it work out, but otherwise same deal here save the occasional deep fry of catfish.

              Salmon is tricky though. All the years of seasoning the crap out of it to get actual flavor from the cooked result…and the most flavorful salmon I had was from a sushi place, raw. I pretty much gave up on salmon since.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        “…but I have to go slap some salmon on the grill…”

        Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Why does it follow form a libertarian perspective that there is nothing wrong with wealth or income inequality or rising wealth or income inequality?

      Other way around. Libertarianism follows from the observation that there’s nothing wrong with income or wealth inequality as such.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        That is, if I thought that income or wealth inequality was such a big problem that the government needed to step in and do something about it, I’d be a leftist.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          You could think it’s a big problem but have a libertarianism so stout that you could think the government shouldn’t do anything about it – either because it can’t or because even if could, you’d still not want it to. It seems to me that for some libertarians that might be a central test of how strong your libertarianism actually is as a proper libertarianism, as apart from just having a Panglossian view of what’s actually the case in the world.Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Drew says:

            As apart from just having a Panglossian view of what’s actually the case in the world.

            Putting aside my objections to the connotations of delusions associated with the term “Panglossian,” which may or may not have been intended, we don’t have a Panglossian view even in a strictly literal sense. Libertarians are, as a rule, very much concerned about the metastasis of government into areas we think should remain in the private sphere, and with the inexorable growth of individual and corporate welfare. To say that libertarians are Panglossian because we don’t think there’s a problem with income inequality is like saying that leftists are Panglossian because they don’t think there’s a problem with those things.Report

            • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              I didn’t intend to imply there that leftists are generally on board with corporate welfare.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              I just meant to shorthand a denial that x is much of a problem when there is significant dispute about whether it is. I’m not saying that libertarians are Panglossian, but I do find that they tend to say that things aren’t as bad as some people make them out to be.

              You didn’t address my response to the very point you brought up, though. You could think that income inequality is a big problem and also be a libertarian and therefore reject a government attempts to mitigate it, just on principle that they are government attempts. Couldn’t you?Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Yes, you could. But it’s optional, not required.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:


              • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Think it’s a big problem but reject reject government mitigation on principle.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

                Are both optional?Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Well, my “it’s optional” referred to your whole question, which was,

                “You could think that income inequality is a big problem and also be a libertarian and therefore reject a government attempts to mitigate it, just on principle that they are government attempts. Couldn’t you?”

                Yes, you could. But you don’t have to.

                But I’m sure each discrete element within it is optional. Problem the only permutation that wouldn’t be reasonably libertarian is to think that income inequality isn’t a big problem, but want a government program to address it anyway.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

                So you wouldn’t say that someone claiming to be a libertarian is failing at it if they think income inequality is a big problem in this country and want the government to do something about it.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

                …something more, that is.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                No, I wouldn’t. I draw a pretty big tent for libertarianism. I think they would be pretty unusual, as far as libertarians go, of course. And I’d expect that their proposed solutions would be different from that of liberals. But to say, “no, that means they’re not a libertarian,” seems, to me, to smack of the no true Scotsman fallacy. At some point the statement is obviously true (“No true Scotsman has only ancestors who are ethnically Polish, was born in Poland and only speaks Polish,” is probably not a fallacious statement), but you have to draw the boundaries fairly wide to avoid treading into the territory of the fallacy.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Or a libertarian could–as someone suggested on one of the threads in this symposium–see it in purely pragmatic terms. Not seeing inequality as a moral problem and opposing government action in principal even if it was a moral problem, but fearing that inequality is reaching the point where a radically redistributive revolution is likely, thinking that government mitigation is the least evil of the likely prospective futures.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Drew says:

                One could, yes. I suspect that most people would resolve that cognitive dissonance one way or the other, though.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                How is that a dissonance? Isn’t it a big part of what you sign up for when you get your membership card to know that you’re going to frequently be saying, “X is a big problem but government solutions aren’t the answer”? Or is the whole project now down to either denying that such real problems exist or saying that they exist because of government? Is no-cost libertarianism just how it’s going to be from now on?Report

              • I’m an utter pessimist and a libertarian.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Why does it follow form a libertarian perspective that there is nothing wrong with wealth or income inequality or rising wealth or income inequality? … why there is there something wrong with inequality of opportunity?

      I actually did write more about this in my first draft of the OP, but the thing threatened to become ungodly lengthy. I’ll try to recapture some of what I was writing then.

      1. Simple wealth inequality.
      If the very fact of wealth inequality is wrong, then there is something illegitimate about the following scenario. After college, you joined a tech startup and after ten years are a multi-millionaire, while I quickly dropped out of corporate America and became a salmon fishing guide in Indiana, living in great contentment in a simple 15 x 15 cabin without electricity on the banks of my favorite stream. If there is nothing wrong in that scenario, ethically or morally, then simple wealth inequality cannot in itself be wrong.

      Now let’s make it tougher and say I am not content. I want to have what you have, or at least closer to it. Can my discontentment cause the disparity to become illegitimate? That seems quite perverse–that my jealousy could turn a situation from legitimate to illegitimate. Assume you and I were attracted to the same girl, and she favored you. If I was happy for you and content to search for another love the outcome would be legitimate, but if I was jealous of you it would be illegitimate?

      What can be wrong is how the inequality comes about. If we started the tech company together and you defrauded me out of my share, that would be wrong, but it would be the action that was wrong. The resulting wealth disparity might be said to be wrong, but it would simply be subsidiary to the illegitimate action.

      rising wealth or income inequality
      Same scenario as before, but each year your stock options increase in value, making the wealth gap between us ever larger. I am still content. What is illegitimate? Later I realize I have become envious; how does that make it illegitimate?

      Inequality of Opportunity
      This is a difficult one. I think Rose’s post actually dealt with this, if not directly, at least indirectly, and in a way I also began writing about before abandoning that approach.

      I think the essential problem here is that it smacks of not being given even a fair chance. E.g., if you and I run a footrace and you win, we’re unlikely to say it wasn’t a fair outcome, so long as we had equal equipment, ran the same distance, both could hear the starter’s pistol equally well, etc. But if we put a heavy weight on you, or slip some Lunesta in your pre-race snack, then we’re likely to say it’s unfair. It’s an intuition, I think, as much as anything else.

      And when we’re just looking at economic outcomes, it could very well be that the adults we’re looking at made choices to not pursue wealth. (I was offered an opportunity to train as a stockbroker–I was even told the job was so easy a monkey could do it–I declined. That’s my choice, and I don’t regret not chasing that greater wealth, so we wouldn’t normally say it’s unfair that I didn’t get it.) But with equality of opportunity, we’re usually talking about kids–about people who have little to no control over their situation being handicapped before they ever reach a position of being able to make choices.

      If we take a kid from a nice suburb, let’s call him Billy Joe, give him a good education and a fair chance to choose to chase after wealth, and instead at age 22 he says, “Ah, I’d rather sit around, get high and watch the tube, so I’m only going to work just enough to buy ganja and pay the cable bill,” well, that’s his choice. But if Billy Joe grows up in the ghetto, where he’s never made aware that there are better opportunities, and whose time in school is spent just staying alive rather than learning anything, and he ends up sitting around getting high and watching the tube, it’s much more of a stretch to say he chose that. You have to know what your options are before we can really say you made a choice. Suburban Billy Joe made a choice; ghetto Billy Joe got fished. It wasn’t wholly voluntary for him.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        So inequality of opportunity that exists between adults who have made different choices from similar circumstances is presumably not as much of an issue at all, then, right? Obviously, people’s opportunities are vastly unequal at any one time, beyond just kids’, including among adults who had essentially the same opportunities through childhood. A thirty year-old who was a rich suburban kid who spent his twenties high on the couch doesn’t have the same opportunities (leaving assets aside) today as one who spent his twenties going to medial school or in the Air Force or learning to become an options trader, and we shouldn’t be too worried about that difference in the inequality between their present opportunities, yes? The issue is really just the savage inequalities that characterize the conditions that the various children in our society grow up in, correct?

        (I might have more to say to respond to/just question what you’ve said here, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get it into presentable format tonight, nor do I know for sure when I might, so for now all I can say is I think I understand your view well.)Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:


          That’s generally correct. I’d say the issue exists on a continuum; it’s not binary, although it’s usually easier to talk about it as though it is. At the farther ends of the continuum it’s easy to see when it’s a case of choice or a case of barriers, towards the middle it can be very hard to say.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

        +1. this is quite well done.Report

    • Michael: Given that my post was purely an attempt to address exactly those questions, I’m curious as to your thoughts on that post.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I’m sort of working on it, but I have limited time at the moment and also have always felt a keen inability to get any reliable purchase on the fundamentals of this issue. Suffice to say that the basic principle that envy isn’t really a philosophically sound argument against someone else’s wealth is enough for me to just concede that there isn’t, but that still leaves us with the fact that philosophical grounding doesn’t fully define our politics. We obviously know that envy is going to play a part in how people look at the society around them. the question is, how are we going to address people’s feelings that, left unaddressed, will affect their politics more, not less.

        And there, I think your post points to a grounded way to address this problem. Namely that, while the envy that people experience when confronted with inequality as a first-order matter can’t be a valid basis for a public response to mounting concern about it as an issue notwithstanding that lack of basis, observations about its effects can be. I actually think this is the approach that authors like Stiglitz and James Galbraith have settled on: to set aside the debate about the ethics of wealth distributions as a primary matter, and instead focus on the effects of certain patterns of distribution of wealth, income, opportunity, or other resources if they are persistent. (My unwritten response to James’ answers to my questions here focus on this as well).

        So basically, I think you’re on the right track. But that’s why I made an issue of the framing of this debate, because if that’s what we want to talk about, then at some point we have to decide that, “What, if anything, is wrong with inequality [per se, as James again puts it in this thread]?” is exactly not what we want to talk about. My point was that that and, “How much or what kinds of inequality, and if what else is also the case that it may or may not cause, do we have problem with and why?” are really very different questions.

        As it turned out, we got a much broader series of entries on the topic on inequality generally, which I think is better. I just thought that, if we agreed that the second of those two questions is really what we want to talk about (and from a comment of James’, it seemed that he did, too), and we were going to try to focus the topic by framing a specific question rather than just naming a topic, as, “Inequality,” or “Inequality: an issue to be concerned about?”, that we may as well frame it around the question we thought really was worth digging into.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

          …More direct response to your post on its own terms now posted there. I didn’t say there what I say here – that I agree with your general approach to looking at the problem – please take that as implicit. The questions I ask are just to a specific line you draw in that approach.Report

          • Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:


            I think we need to ask ourselves “why did we evolve to be envious of wealth?” There are anthropological speculations on the issue. At this point, your vantage does start to merge with Rose’s post, which is why are we less concerned with inequality in other fields.

            I attempted an answer in her thread.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

              I think you’re making that particular question more mysterious than it is. Not sure precisely how what I’m saying here merges with Rose’s post, except generally that people envy what others have.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

              …Not that it’s not worth looking into at all… just, what is figuring that out going to tell us to help deal with the problem?Report

  10. b-psycho says:

    Good to have more acknowledgement of the ways government intervention actually cuts against the disadvantaged. The more it’s realized how little of what we’re all complaining about can be filed under It Just Happens That Way, the better.

    My own interpretation of the birth of the state has been that it originally just was those with the most resources by default (that is, who in ancient terms would’ve been “the rich” were one in the same with “the government”), that they figured claiming some kind of authority would be a clever way of protecting & growing their stake. When the claim broke down, that’s where the violence came in, and the scheme got more complex as time went on. Now we look at countries where the politicians have all the money as barbaric absurdities, not realizing the real advance we crow about has been the money people contracted out the work.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to b-psycho says:

      Now we look at countries where the politicians have all the money as barbaric absurdities, not realizing the real advance we crow about has been the money people contracted out the work.

      That’s a hell of an interesting thought.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


        The concept of division of labor disputes your explanation. Certainly some people concentrated their efforts by specializing in wealth production. Trouble is that others can specialize in wealth exploitation. Find those that have produced, and take it from them. These folks specialize first in violence, then if they are smart they shift to becoming a stationary bandit. They become the elite and delegate responsibility and a share of the spoils to their underlings.

        The problem with the elite is that they became so and continued to be so via violence. The state is how they manage the livestock, and were the livestock. This pretty much matches the last few dozen world history books that I have read from various political persuasions.Report

  11. James K says:

    An excellent post James, my favourite of the symposium, though since I strongly agree with it I’m likely biased.Report

    • Roger in reply to James K says:

      I agree with Mr K.

      I sometimes tease liberals that “big government solution” is an oxymoron. Of course as your post lays out, it is a more balanced. Some folks are just assuming markets are the problem and government is the solution. the fact that government “solutions” could be part of the problem just doesn’t seem to make sense.

      The great thing is that you explained it so well, the big government crowd is hardly even challenging you.Report

    • North in reply to James K says:

      Good post Prof, and I profitted with a Salmon recepie on top of it so it’s been a good read all the way down the thread.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to James K says:

      Thanks all.Report

  12. Annelid Gustator says:

    “That is, the institution that organizes the system would be blamed if it were the market, and demands would be made to supplant that organizing institution with another one, but when the organizing institution is the government it is not the institution that gets blamed, and there is no call to replace it with a different organizing institution”

    This is… insane. There’s a contant hue and cry to do just that. Is your claim that because it isn’t universal it isn’t there?

    It is the nature of government and politics that creates many of the problems that result in a subpar education for so many children.

    As opposed to the situation that obtained on the veldt? Or in every time prior to ~Prussia? What sets par, hmm?Report

  13. Jeff says:

    This is a nice, well-written essay. So much so that I almost over-looked the theme of the essay:
    TAXES are THEFT stolen by means of a GUN to the FACE!!!!11!

    The Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil Gubmint is always taking, taking, taking, and never ratchets down, which is why the Post Office owns UPS, FedEx and DHL. Cabinet departments always seize more and more power, like HUD. There is no true “public” space, like roads, or rivers, or the fishing atmosphere.Report

  14. sonmi451 says:

    I think there’s something even more disturbing about the stance – “well, this thing is a problem, but we should do nothing about it, because, government is EVIL!” rather than straight away believing that something is not a problem.Report