After a meeting with the head of a big investment company in Paternoster Square the other day I asked him what he made of the protests by St Paul’s. He said that he thought it was healthy for people to question the status quo, and that for a long time there has been too little radicalism. It reminded me of something that the Tiggerish Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek often says – that there is no battle of ideologies any more; most people unthinkingly accept that liberal democratic capitalism is the best system. When two such different people are on the same page, something’s in the air.
If I read the mood right, people are unhappy that the rich are getting richer while the rest are getting poorer. Credit Suisse’s 2011 Global Wealth Report says that in the past year the wealth of the richest grew by 29%, twice as fast as the world in general. The richest 29.7 million have 39% of the world’s wealth. That is less than the 1% that the Paternoster Square protestors are so angry about. The world, it seems, is getting more unequal.
But is inequality bad? Plato thought so, and thought that all property (including wives and children) should be held in common, to minimise jealously and conflict over ownership. That’s probably going too far. Aristotle, a terrible aristocratic snob who couldn’t have done without his slaves, argued that Plato’s state would be unfair, because lazy people would have the same as the industrious. That seems reasonable. Inequality can be fair if it is the result of work.
In the 70s the American philosopher Robert Nozick made his famous “Wilt Chamberlain” argument, based on the then-famous American basketball player. Imagine everybody starts with the same amount of money, but lots of them pay to watch Chamberlain play. He gets rich. It can’t be right to then forcibly take the money off him and redistribute it, can it?
That said, rich people can overestimate how much their own wealth is down to their own hard work. Luck plays a part. Wilt Chamberlain was tall. And society plays a part, too – not just the thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge that everybody benefits from, but the settled, civilised, law-abiding, predictable society that you need to flourish. As an American politician said recently, nobody gets anywhere on their own.
On your own, you are sitting in a cave eating crows. Anybody who thinks they owe nothing to society is wrong. Wilt Chamberlain benefited from an accumulated knowledge of basketball techniques; hedge fund managers benefit from complex maths developed over centuries. But does it follow that they should pay higher taxes?
And anyway, would a more economically equal society be better? A few years ago the book The Spirit Level argued that unequal societies cause unhappiness, although their findings are disputed. These days people tend to argue that society should be structured to be more economically equal. But the coercion needed could produce resentment; the extra unhappiness might outweigh the happiness.
The existentialists were fond of talking about “the absurd”. They would have understood a world which contains a billionaire gnome-importer. He took a chance that nobody else spotted. Who can begrudge him? Inequality is an unintended consequence of freedom. It’s said that the poor will always be with us. So, perhaps, will the super-rich.