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The equality trap
What Samuel Gompers and Charles Dickens knew
Samuel Gompers was asked what labor wanted. "More," he replied.
Oliver Twist was less demanding. "Please, sir, I want some more," he said, empty bowl in hand.
Neither the American labor union leader nor the Dickens protagonist said anything about wanting as much as other people. They didn't ask for equality; they simply wanted more.
Their goal was straightforward and easy to understand. And it was persuasive, given that Gompers' workers and Twist and his poorhouse confreres didn't have enough.
More important, it didn't require anyone else to have less. This is where modern demands for equality, which is the way reforms to help the disadvantaged are usually pitched, run into trouble. Equality is a comparative concept. It can be achieved by leveling up, leveling down, or, most typically, some of each. In this most typical form, there are losers as well as winners. And it’s in the nature of political economies that the prospective losers will be more powerful politically than the prospective winners. Which is why such schemes are hard to pull off.
Beyond this is the invidious nature of comparisons generally. Every comparison is a zero-sum game at best. I am better than you, but you are worse than me. I feel good by making you feel bad. In practice, many comparisons are negative-sum games. Only one person in any category is the best; everybody else is worse.
In comparisons of this kind, the politics can sometimes work out, even if the economics doesn’t. When nobody else is as rich as Rockefeller, all the lesser sorts can gang up on the mogul. But as rich as Rockefeller might be, dispossessing one person doesn't add much the bottom line of the masses.
So the net has to be cast wider, targeting perhaps the top one percent. In the process, though, the sharp edge of redistribution is dulled, and the one percent collectively can fend off the attack.
In America, redistribution schemes have never succeeded. Too many Americans think their children or grandchildren will get rich, even if they themselves don’t. And the rich have good lawyers and accountants, able to game every new tax regime.
We need to try something different. Abandon the comparative aspect. Ask not for equality. Ask for more for those who need more. Don’t say they should get what they need because others have more than they need. Leave those others out of it—if only because you want their votes too. Some people are motivated by guilt, but most people aren’t. Besides, most people don’t feel guilty about what they have, especially if they’ve worked to get it. Trust-fund kiddies might have nagging consciences, but they aren’t numerous.
Hungry children should be fed because they are hungry, not because someone else has too much to eat. Classrooms should have books, because that’s how children learn, not because other classrooms have more books than necessary. Every American should have access to medical care, because in countries that can afford it, public health is a public good and should be so treated.
Samuel Gompers’ radical contemporaries sought a socialist paradise where all would be equal. They didn’t achieve their goal. He did.