According to the Wall Street Journal, Warren Buffett is over $12 billion richer than he was a year ago. Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) gained pretty close to that much. I think that’s absolutely fantastic.
What exactly is wrong with some people having a lot more than others?
Some think inequality of wealth causes poverty: Many are poor because a few are rich. This is natural enough to believe, and it reaches people at a very gut level. But our brains should know better.
Everything we know about human history and economics tells us that wealth is not a zero sum game. Poverty, far from being caused by inequality of wealth, is actually the natural state of humanity. You just have to look back long enough. For the huge majority of human history, most human beings lived short brutish lives and died in squalor and misery.
What changed things? Western civilization. Only institutions like private property, the rule of law, and capitalism made it possible for the huge masses of ordinary people to have luxuries like basic comfort, decent lives and leisure time to talk about how awful capitalism is.
The more pragmatic of my liberal friends believe that too much inequality makes society unstable. According to them, if the gap between rich and poor widens too much, we’ll have riots in the streets, social unrest, and ultimately revolution.
To me, this just enshrines envy into social policy. What if our culture were different? If America were a society that understood that covetousness was unacceptable, that believed freedom was more important than fairness, then disparities in wealth wouldn’t cause social instability. In fact, given that the left works so hard to turn the culture in the opposite direction, aren’t liberal predictions of social instability self-fulfilling?
People react so passionately about inequality of wealth because it’s in our DNA. It’s part of our evolutionary history. Research in evolutionary psychology shows that people everywhere have an innate sense of fairness. Children do too; any parent knows that’s one of the first concepts a child grasps. Particularly if you raise two of them.
But there are lots of things innate in human nature that we aren’t exactly proud of. Preferences for people who look like we do. Tribalism. Violence. Male sexual promiscuity. Female sexual manipulation. Confusing correlation with causation. Believing in things that aren’t real. Choosing leaders based on certain characteristics and giving them power over us.
All these are primitive leftovers from hundreds of thousands of years ago. They may have served us well fighting for survival on the African savannah, but are poorly adapted for the modern world our evolved brains helped create. Our sense of “fairness”, I would argue, is just like that.
In the zero-sum world of tribal hunters, it mattered a lot how to divide up the mammoth carcass. Tribes that didn’t parcel out the meat fairly weren’t going to survive long. That was fine back then. But like so many other innate aspects of human nature, it’s holding us back now.
In the modern world, wealth is created through human effort and ingenuity, not killed, brought back and chopped up for distribution among the tribe. If we allow people to create wealth, then differences in aptitude, interest, desire, motivation, and sheer dumb luck are going to mean some people have more than others. Sometimes, a lot more.
But so what? If you want human beings to stop living in caves, eating mammoth meat, and wondering whether or not they’ll survive till spring, that’s what you have to do. You have to allow them this crazy, modern idea. Nowadays, we call it “freedom”.
So the next time someone wants you to vote for “fairness”, ask yourself this: Which part of your nature are they appealing to? They might not be as enlightened as they claim to be. Just the opposite.
Barry Fagin is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. Ths op-ed originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette. Readers can write Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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