What’s wrong with inequality?

Photo credit: Matt McDermott

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a message for the Occupy Wall Street protesters: Keep focusing on gross inequality of outcomes and you’ll get nowhere.

Haidt and his colleagues have developed a theory about how people make moral judgments. He argues that moral judgment is intuitive. "We know what is right and wrong in much the same way we know what is beautiful", says Haidt. "When called on to explain ourselves we make up reasons after the fact."

This intuitive ethics rests on five foundations: Care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In the US, liberals focus on the first two foundations while conservatives rely on all five. In itself, inequality doesn’t offend against any of these foundational intuitions. As a result, the OWS protesters needs to spell out exactly what’s wrong with inequality. In a recent article for Reason magazine Haidt writes:

Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, then they won’t be angry, and they won’t support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that the “1 percent” got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that the 1 percent abuses its power and oppresses the 99 percent, then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations.

In making their case, Haidt argues that the protesters need to avoid "acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American." These would offend against the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

As in Australia, people disagree about whether inequality of wealth and income is a bad thing. Haidt’s analysis suggests that these disagreements may grounded in differences of opinion about the causes of inequality rather than differences in moral principle.

Leftists are often accused of supporting the principle of equality of outcomes as if it were a moral principle. But as Haidt argues there is no equality foundation in intuitive ethics. So could it be that this is a straw man argument? Perhaps the real debate should be over the causes and effects of inequality?

I suspect, however, that judgments about causation are fused with judgments about moral responsibility and blame. It seems impossible to restrict debate over the causes of wealth and poverty to empirical issues. For example, if you suggest that some individual characteristic plays a causal role in explaining a person’s poverty, you’ll be accused of ‘blaming the victim’. I wonder whether causal judgments are also mostly intuitive with reasons made up after the fact.

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28 Responses to What’s wrong with inequality?

  1. Captain Australia says:

    Don what is the matter with you? You know what this is about don’t you? How much are they paying you? Or don’t they need to pay you for this belly-crawling airbrushing of the situation? That would be more than shameful if you are playing along of your own accord.

    The criminal gang have stolen 16+ trillion in the last two years alone. Thats as much as they themselves have confessed to in their 35,000 page document dump. And thats the US only. The rolling thunder of stealing has happened in Europe as well. Essentially its a Nato-country phenomenon. If you weren’t on Mars over the weekend you ought to have noticed they stole another trillion from the Europeans in the last 48 hours. Now what will it take for you to wake up to the situation, and to yourself?

  2. Captain Australia says:

    There seems to be a blood oath across the spectrum among the Australian economics never to learn monetary economics. Maybe this is why Professor Keen isn’t that popular with his colleagues. He was told never to leave the boat but he left the boat just the same. It must take some sort of exquisite discipline for the rest of you to maintain that level of ignorance in your chosen field.

  3. Yobbo says:

    2 problems here:

    Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, then they won’t be angry

    Most Americans do think that.

    and secondly:

    In making their case, Haidt argues that the protesters need to avoid “acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American.”

    They can’t help themselves from doing these things, because the protestors actually are Anti-American and pretty much every single protest ghetto has already descended into the kind of unwashed hippie anarchy that everyone knew it would.

  4. Peter Patton says:

    Don, I get the impression you either work in, or have worked in universities, in the social science space. So, there is no way that you are not fully aware of the division of labour. From the bottom up:

    1. Education
    2. Social Psychology
    3. Media Studies.

    And yet, you post this cookie-cutter leftist American social psychology kimbaya teacher, without a hint of critique, or at least irony, before presuming to conclude he trumps Marx, Engels, Luxemberg, Ernest Bevin, Norma Rae, several thousand Greeks, oh, and Jesus Christ

    As in Australia, people disagree about whether inequality of wealth and income is a bad thing. Haidt’s analysis suggests that these disagreements may grounded in differences of opinion about the causes of inequality rather than differences in moral principle.

    Actually, Haidt’s op-ed tells us absolutely nothing about Australia, and your uncritical reliance on Haidt’s chats with his students – the dupes of the top2-5%, who have been astroturfing this wank for nearly a year now. But again. not. Relevant. Here.

    Why are those left-winger uni types who stayed in Australia always looking over their shoulders for intellectual, policy, and political directions from the Yanks?

    Leftists are often accused of supporting the principle of equality of outcomes as if it were a moral principle. But as Haidt argues there is no equality foundation in intuitive ethics. So could it be that this is a straw man argument? Perhaps the real debate should be over the causes and effects of inequality?

    Would you mind linking to some of these folks who look leftist Communists as guided by an “moral” principle. No education in History, Economics, and Maths maybe, coupled with little responsibility for investment, production, and exchange decisions, more like.

    But the main problem with that paragraph is that it is almost word for word, John Galt.

    For example, if you suggest that some individual characteristic plays a causal role in explaining a person’s poverty, you’ll be accused of ‘blaming the victim’.

    Do you seriously lose sleep over this. I got it from a tutor in 1st Semester 1st Year. I thought it was the oddest thing I ever heard, correcting the tutor, that no, I was not blaming anyone, and there was no ‘victim’ in this tale. ‘Victims’ are in hospitable all bloody, beat up, poor and/or violated. A GPS-educated white boy running around OccupyOz shrieking “mic check” is not a ‘victim’, but a tool.

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Yobbo – I’m not sure I understand your first problem. Are you saying that it’s impossible to change people’s opinions about the causes of inequality?

    As I understand it, the research suggests that American public opinion about inequality is more complicated than you suggest.

    First, many Americans aren’t aware of how unequal the distribution of wealth and income really is.

    Second, while most Americans think inequality is fair if it’s the result of differences in contribution, it’s not clear that a majority would endorse the level of inequality that actually prevails.

    Third, a significant proportion of Americans believe that inheritance, luck etc play a significant part in determining incomes.

    Haidt is suggesting that it may be possible for the protesters to influence opinion about inequality by trying to influence opinions about why the top 1% have so much more than everyone else. He might be right.

    But I’m wondering whether some people make an intuitive moral judgment first and then work backwards to a position about causation.

    A useful source on US public opinion is: Kluegel and Smith’s ‘Beliefs about inequality: Americans’ views of what is and what ought to be’.

  6. Yobbo says:

    Haidt is suggesting that it may be possible for the protesters to influence opinion about inequality by trying to influence opinions about why the top 1% have so much more than everyone else. He might be right.

    The protestors aren’t trying to influence anything, they just like breaking things and making a nuisance of themselves.

  7. Peter Patton says:

    And why would a top 1% think a top 15% with shitty grades in ‘Social Psychology’ have to teach a top 1% dude? me thinks this Haidt dude is a bit confused about who’s the teacher and student here.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    There’s a few issues here. The OWS people won’t be able to stop some in their name from doing things that turn off middle America. Like flag burning and so on. So Bob Carr argues that they’re doomed to irrelevance.

    On Haidt and there being no innate moral intuition for equality. That’s not what Hayek thought. I thought in most hunter gatherer societies equality was a strongly held value. Doesn’t that suggest it has some innate resonance within our breasts even if in agricultural societies that resonance gets outweighed by other values (like deference to the powerful).

  9. JC says:

    As I understand it, the research suggests that American public opinion about inequality is more complicated than you suggest.

    Yes it is complicated. Did this guy delve into the subject if Americans believe there is a large underclass? If the answer is overwhelmingly in the affirmative it’s should surprise.

    First, many Americans aren’t aware of how unequal the distribution of wealth and income really is.

    I don’t believe that for a second. Every other news show with two opposing sides had one talking head raising the issue of inequality. Gore ran an election telling voters that numerous Americans were going to bed hungry and it was then found out to be largely rubbish. He had no evidence.

    Here’s the thing Don. The US income tax system is more progressive than ours. What do suggest ought to be done? When I left I was paying 52% in income taxes. How much higher should that go.

    Lastly.. and this is the moment to make the point. There are numerous academics making lots of noise about the issue of inequality. Like both here and the US they would earn 3 times the median. Why not that they become the first to ask their salaries get cut to the median level and show the rest of us how it’s done.

  10. Peter Patton says:

    Doesn’t that suggest it has some innate resonance within our breasts even if in agricultural societies that resonance gets outweighed by other values (like deference to the powerful).

    No. It means we selected out of it millennia ago, to spend our days building skyscrapers, living to 100, eating Truffles, drinking Cristal, wearing Armani, and banging Chinese chicks. As soon as I hear the phrase “hunter-gatherer” I reach for my .303.

  11. Pedro says:

    Our moral sense may be intuitive, but clearly it is not intuitively the same, so it is difficult to see any policy implications from the claim.

    Let’s assume that hunter-gather societies have a deep attachment to equality of outcome. Does that mean it is a human right? Or does that mean it is a cultural adaptation to the circumstances of hunter gatherer life? If that is true about hunter gatherers, it did not survive the transition to more aggressive nomadism or agriculture.

    I think more is explained by envy than greed.

  12. Bruce Bradbury says:

    The left-liberal idea is that it is not “fair” if some people do better just because they are lucky enough to be born with the right parents, talents, personality or genes (eg Rawls). Those to the right might accept some items on this list (eg parents) but not others (talents, personality, genes). Further still to the right, none might be accepted.

    I think some degree of adherence to fairness in this sense (which is much broader than just ‘not cheating’) is part of intuitive ethics. If so, it is wrong to state that “In itself, inequality doesn’t offend against any of these foundational intuitions”.

  13. Dan says:

    “Third, a significant proportion of Americans believe that inheritance, luck etc play a significant part in determining incomes.”

    A no-brainer if ever I heard one, just common sense (except if you believe in something like the divine right of kings).

    [email protected] – the protests have been, I think, surprisingly peaceful – well-documented police brutality notwithstanding. Violent and disproportionate overreaction is a staple of the culture there. Last time I was in Baltimore I got a dose of mace (just caught in the crossfire, but it *sucked*) because – get this – a *concert venue* didn’t clear out fast enough for the likings of the security personnel/polic presence there. I’m surprised (and glad) that cops aren’t getting shot.

    [email protected] – you may not believe it, but it’s true. Empirically speaking, most Americans simply have *no conception* of how rich the rich are relative to everyone else.

  14. Yobbo says:

    [email protected] – the protests have been, I think, surprisingly peaceful

    Well, they haven’t broken out into outright revolution yet Dan, but the protests both in the US here have just been more of the same old, same old. Lefties who think they are immune to the law vandalising, trespassing and littering public areas, while violently antagonising police.

    well-documented police brutality notwithstanding.

    So well-documented, in fact, that there hasn’t been a single link produced to a photograph or video of police brutality at all, but dozens of examples of protestors trying to antagonise them into responses – their standard MO.

  15. Dan says:

    [email protected]

    Really? Here’s a police sergeant mace peaceful, unarmed female protesters who had already been kettled:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ05rWx1pig

    Apparently this coward has earned the opprobrium of fellow officers, and rightly so. But, of course, it’s not the only incident – my heart goes out to that 24y.o. veteran who had served two tours of duty in Iraq and is now at risk of permanent brain injury thanks to the Oakland cops’ disproportionate and bizarre violence.

    No doubt a few protesters are doing some stuff that is annoying or even dangerous. But that doesn’t mean you should defend the indefensible.

  16. Dan says:

    Apart from anything else, your claim fails the laugh test – no one wants to get maced, hit with a baton, or, generally speaking, arrested. Those things *suck*. I can vouch for the first of them myself.

  17. Dan says:

    The only good that comes out of these sorts of things is that they expose the utter moral bankruptcy of the powers that be. Pam Martens, an ex-Wall Street trader herself, has been doing some fine investigative reporting on what’s going on with NYPD officers in *white* shirts. While they are actual NYPD, in this capacity, they’re essentially private security, hired by big money and subsidised by the taxpayer. Lovely.

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/10/financial-giants-put-new-york-city-cops-on-their-payroll/

  18. Yobbo says:

    Mace and Pepper Spray are not the same thing Dan. Mace is tear gas. And using pepper spray is not “police brutality”, it is standard crowd control practice. It has no lasting effects other than hurt feelings.

    I agree that it’s cowardly to pepper spray people who had already been corralled. By being a coward and police brutality are not the same thing. Protestors have done much worse things than pepper spray someone in the past few weeks.

    While they are actual NYPD, in this capacity, they’re essentially private security, hired by big money and subsidised by the taxpayer.

    None of which would be necessary if people hadn’t been continuously and illegally rioting for weeks.

  19. Dan says:

    I think you are just stirring. Nobody else I know, no matter how lorn-order conservative, thinks that big companies being able to *hire the police* is a good idea. Feel free to lurch right of a cliff on this one.

    Incidentally, ‘Mace’ is brand name, and yes, it was originally tear gas but is now pepper spray. Still correctly referred to as “a can of mace”, “being maced”, etc. etc.

    As for ‘no lasting effects except hurt feelings’ – key word is lasting; I challenge you to receive a dose. It is incapacitating and excruciating. (The lasting effect that seems more pertinent to me is losing any vestiges of respect or trust for the uniform).

  20. Yobbo says:

    Nobody has much respect for police as it is Dan. But they have even less respect for protestors who out there to deliberately break the law and piss everyone off, then complain about it when the police turn up.

    Surely you realise that the organisers of these protestors always have their fingers crossed that the police will turn up with an overeager response and make them look like victims. But they’d need to do more than pepper spray a few hippies for anyone to take notice.

    Nobody else I know, no matter how lorn-order conservative, thinks that big companies being able to *hire the police* is a good idea.

    ]

    I don’t see what difference it makes if people want to work on their days off. The problem is the imbalance of power, immunity from assault charges and right to weaponry that only extends to police and security guards, and not to ordinary citizens.

    That said, protestors don’t have the right to complain about police breaking the law when their “civil disobedience” – by definition – involves deliberately breaking the law and relying on the police force’s desire to keep order to prevent being arrested or prosecuted for it.

    There are actual victims of police brutality out there who did nothing to bring it on themselves, those are the ones most people are worried about.

  21. Dan says:

    “Nobody has much respect for police as it is Dan.”

    1) I suggest you desist from using people’s names at the end of the sentence. It reads as if you are patronising the person you are talking to.
    2) Really? I was brought up to trust and respect police. Obviously there’s a few bad apples in any profession, especially one with as many fancy toys and coercive powers as that. The problem is not these powers per se (if it is, that’s a legislative issue). It’s the abuse of these powers.
    3) If you’d read the Martens article you’d know it’s not days off; it’s subcontracting *through official channels*.

    I’m glad to read that you’re a staunch defender of “actual victims of police brutality”, who obviously and by definition must be people who categorically are not associated with #OWS.

  22. Patrick says:

    So Dan why have no Tea Party protests needed this disproportionate response?

    A because they all had jobs to go back to.

  23. Dan says:

    [email protected]:

    Usually I’m quite impressed by your comments, but ‘…needed this disproportionate response…’ suggests rather a circular intellectual predisposition (‘The hippies were maced; therefore, the hippies deserved to be maced; therefore the hippies were maced’).

    In any event, I don’t see what the US labour market for college graduates *sucking* right now has to do with police violence.

    As for the Tea Party – they may (or may not have) have jobs, but middle-class incomes have been stagnant, indeed declining, for three decades; meanwhile profits have gone gangbusters. So frankly I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

  24. observa says:

    Spare me the police brutality bit Yobbo or the heinous bouncers who pick on poor innocents having a fun night out. Pissed, fuelled up on amphetamines and looking for a fight with anyone and everyone and you’ll get what you deserve in a sensibly manned establishment, but unfortunately not so out on the street, more’s the pity. My folks couldn’t have imagined the need for bouncers at dances they attended in their younger days but then they knew they couldn’t drink within cooee of the entrance of a dance hall and there was a law called drunk and disorderly. As for getting glassed in the face or your drink spiked in a hotel, they’d have thought you were from another planet.

    Inequality today is all about rent and there’s no bigger rent than that provided by fossil fuels in conjunction with the capital it fires and much of it increasingly computer controlled. It’s why left green quants took to global warming computer models like a duck to water after a period of ideological despair with the fall of the Wall. The sublime irony with their new proxy war on carbon is their total enthral with carbon credit creation and trading. How on earth they could be suckered into providing more of the very raw materials for the Morgan Sachs Macquarie rent-seeker crowd is beyond human comprehension. Making the ‘Big Pollooders’ pay via such a mechanism has to be the most ineffectual and roundabout way of tackling the economic rent inherent in fossill fuels, that you could possibly dream up. The ultimate bankruptcy of leftist thought but you can’t tell them.

  25. Yobbo says:

    I suggest you desist from using people’s names at the end of the sentence. It reads as if you are patronising the person you are talking to.

    It’s all in your head, Dan. There’s nothing about using your name at the end of a sentence that suggests that.

  26. Dan says:

    In this instance, people’s interpretations (I’m not the only one, I’ve been picked up on myself) are precisely the issue. You can ignore it if you wish, but it hardly does you any favours. (Doing so, on the other hand, incurs no cost at all.)

  27. Tel says:

    My folks couldn’t have imagined the need for bouncers at dances they attended in their younger days…

    Ha ha, my grandfather grew up in Newtown, he was a bouncer, at the time it was considered a mildly well-to-do occupation. A.k.a dog-whalloper.

    Newtown has changed somewhat, but the need to keep out undesirables never seems to.

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