No one likes inequality. Even defenders of inequality (like myself) don’t so much advocate it as an ideal, but simply explain its universality and inevitability. Ardent libertarians often defend their free market absolutism not by defending wealth inequality, but by trying to argue that free markets are, in fact, the best way to reach equality of a kind (that of opportunity), and they point out that libertarian nations are more equitable than socialist ones.
The reason is fairly simple: no one likes looking at poverty. No one likes being confronted with abject suffering, of humans or even animals. We may envy the wealthy, and speculate about possible illicit means used in the achievement of their success, but that’s really a secondary issue, a rallying outward focus that is made necessary by a more primary emotion. I am convinced that the hatred of poverty, even of the poor themselves, is the greater psychological motivation behind the fundamental human inclination towards ever more equal systems of distribution.
The psychology of the political left — in its positive and negative forms — is always focused on improving things, whereas the the psychology of the right is focused on mitigating threats. From this, it is natural that the left more than the right would be focused on finding ways of approaching greater degrees of equality.
Things get complicated as soon as the realities of politics enter the equation. Rallying political support requires a political motivation, and where politics is concerned, you need an enemy in order to get that kind of backing. The need for equality isn’t enough to get people politically active, thus rallying the coalition that is believed to be necessary in order to use the force of the government to create the conditions necessary for achievement of “true equality.” This means that the actual causes of inequality — whatever they may be — are necessarily lost in favor of the causes must be said to be in order to gain support. No matter what really causes inequality, it must be “the 1%.” An enemy outgroup is required.
This might be convenient if that was, in fact, the case. And indeed, it very well may be the case: I will explain how I believe this to be somewhat true. However, as with politics, we cannot understand why things are as unequal as they are without understanding how, and this how dramatically changes the intuitive response to an “oppressive” wealthy class feeding off an “oppressed” poor.
As an analogy, consider the nature and function of the lottery.
There is perhaps no more efficient wealth aggregator and concentrator than the lottery. It sucks in massive amounts of money in a remarkably “equal” fashion, and then dumps all of that money in one place.
(Well, actually two places: the jackpot winner, and the lottery itself.)
Why would anyone play this game? After all, it’s “voluntary;” no one is forcing you.
So the lottery’s moral defenders — or those who benefit from it — will point out. But the “voluntary” defense presumes a kind of free will independent of natural human instincts that can be exploited. We’ll return to this in a second.
Everyone knows who plays the lottery: poor people. I learned this first-hand, spending time with lower-income people in the trades and in the truck-driving world. My first truck-driving trainer was a lower-class black man named Damon who’d spent two years in prison. He was essentially a decent guy with his sights set on living a normal life, but he grew up in a rough part of Little Rock, and the ghetto culture hung with him. He was a lotto player. Many in his neighborhood were.
The interesting thing was that Damon knew the lottery was a losing game. He knew that the odds of him getting some return on his investment were vanishingly small. And yet he still played.
He wasn’t stupid. His problem was that his feeling of need overrode his rationality. “I know the odds are against me, but if only I could win just once…” Emotions like hope come from older parts of our brain (I’m no neurologist, but I’m pretty sure it’s the hippocampus), far more powerful in motivation than our more recent addition: the abstracting, reasoning, calculating, reasoning frontal cortex. By crude analogy, consider the mental effects of going without food for three days. Your lizard brain positively takes over, and all you will be able to think about is food and how to acquire it.
The human brain has all sorts of reactions like these that undermine the notion of an absolute free will, of the kind that completely acquits outside actors of any responsibility for the behavior of individuals. Drug dealers also come to mind. But I am convinced that the desire for equality an function in this manner too. Our disgust with vast inequalities makes our desire for equality into a kind of need which can drive behavior in predictable fashions, and these patterns of behavior can be exploited.
Consider the language of politicians who advocate for equality. Their platforms are usually promises to “level the playing field,” or “give everyone an equal chance,” or some other equalitarian platitude designed to signal that they are for equality. But the very essence of the game they are playing — politics — is antithetical to this stated goal. Politics is the art and science of aggregating power through coalition-building. This very act of aggregation is a dis-equalizing act, and — moreover — it usually involves a fair bit of concentrating money in the process. This is not so much the goal as it is a means to the goal, but in modern times where marketing and brand recognition have been magnified in their power due to the growing human-scale of political society, and the subsequent distance between individuals (making vague, associative words all the more powerful, since meeting the actual subject of those words is so vanishingly unlikely), power and money are becoming functionally identical. The aggregation of political power requires — and therefore is — the aggregation and concentration of wealth. This is inescapable.
This means that a politics of equality will always be self-defeating, and yet — tragically — will always be… for the same reason that poor people gamble. The need for equality — or at least disgust for great inequality — drives a desire to act against inequality, and this action will always express itself politically when given the opportunity. And this political expression must necessarily further the aggregation of power and wealth, widening the gap, rather than reducing it.
This means that paradoxically, for those who seek to reduce inequality in their own society, one of the best things to do is to consciously care less about inequality — thus depriving at least one of the great drivers of inequality (politicians) of their source of power: you. The equality advocate may protest that while politicians may be bad, they can at least be leveraged against a greater number of more powerful agents of inequality, such as the lottery. But this is the mindset of the lottery-player too. Only the institution changes. Incidentally, this mental tactic could work on the lottery as well; if a poor person were induced to care a little bit less about having extraordinary amounts of money; if they thought a little bit less enviously of their friend with a Cadillac or a 6-bedroom house, their need to compulsively purchase a lottery ticket against their rational best judgment might be mitigated. Not enough to stop all lotto players, but perhaps a fair number of them.
The problem, of course, is that simply “caring less” is obviously easier said than done. In fact, we could say that this fact is the problem itself. But going down one more layer, we can see that the need for equality (or for money) is the product of our attention being directed in very particular ways… to a mansion, to footage of starving slums, or animals in cages serenaded by Sarah McLachlan.
Our instinctual responses stem from these encounters, and while we (as a greater population) may not have much conscious control over our immediate responses to these stimuli, we can find freedom in our control over the gates to our attention. The politicians who use “equality” to further exacerbate inequality actually do not have a right to molest you with images and stories of the poor and impoverished of elsewhere, just as Powerball does not have a right to impose images on your mind of lucky multi-millionaires who just happened to get the right numbers… especially if they neglect the multi-million people who just lose percentages of their paycheck for nothing.
No one believes we should abandon our impoverished neighbors to a fate of destitution. For thousands of years, help and hospitality have been universal social values. But now we hear much about “institutional inequality,” which seems to be defined as an inequality that is both especially imperative to resolve, and which classical hospitality is incapable of mitigating. This is dubious on its face, and smacks of sophistry in its vagueness and unfalsifiability. But it also creates the perfect excuse for champions of equality to step forward and speak on behalf of the impoverished… with or without their knowledge, let alone approval. Such champions are almost never motivated by resolving the problem, because the problem is the source of their own political power. Quite the contrary; they would rather exacerbate it, and would even do so openly, if they could get away with it by calling it “raising awareness.”
True equality is never going to happen, and a good thing too; it would be undesirable. But as far as dealing with the extremes of destitution and tyrannical power, things which are almost universally rejected, making more noise via “activism” seems — counter-intuitively — to be an ineffective answer, even counter-productive. It aggregates power and wealth in the hands of those who place themselves at the center of whatever “movement” emerges from the collective aim, often at the cost of the many, and always at the cost of the personal enemies of these new champions.
Yet, like the gambler, we seem compulsively drawn back to the media, back to politics, back to the outrage, the hurt and suffering and the problems we would like to see resolved. Our compassion is leveraged against us, and the problem we had hoped to solve is, instead, amplified.
If resolving this conflict seems to be an imperative, then the striking solution to the worst part of the problem may be simply this: stop caring. Cease supporting and participating in large-scale political projects to resolve these kinds of problems.
This is not an imperative to become cold and callous — this is a conflation that the champions of “virtue” desperately need you to fall for. Indeed, the most compassionate and empathetic people I have met have been largely apolitical. They were too busy caring about real people, helping others themselves, to be bothered with the schemers and dreamers. They just didn’t have the attention for it (though let’s not walk into another false-dichotomy: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being a schemer or a dreamer).
In the greater political world, where attention and care are commodities to be preyed upon, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the noise around some activist interest and its likelihood of resolution. To the genuinely empathetic and compassionate person who seeks to reduce extreme wealth inequality — or, at least, not to make it worse — perhaps the best thing to be done is to let it go. Abstain, and stay politically sober, in the way an alcoholic might avoid the bottle, or a gambler a casino. Avoid not just the subject, but the setting within which the subject may appear. And encourage others to do the same. Like wood withheld from the fire, the flames that have elevated the human ash and detritus to great heights above all others will gradually starve, dwindling and fading to embers.
They will never truly die. They’ll go on smoldering among us, waiting for some future wave of psychic energy to lift them back above the credulous and gullible masses, mocking them from above even as they depend upon them for their power. But there is no need for us to tolerate them today, to feed their ego and fire, and participate in the confounding of our own preferences by psychic vampires who care nothing and do nothing for you.