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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Income Inequality: Natural vs. Artificial

In the United States, the disposable income of families in the middle of the income distribution shrank by 4 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the OECD.[1] Over roughly the same period, the income of the top 1 percent increased by 11 percent. In 2012, the average CEO of one of the 350 largest U.S. companies made about $14.07 million, while the average pay for a non-supervisory worker was $51,200.[2] In other words, the average CEO made 273 times more than the average worker. In 1965, CEOs were paid just 20 times more; by 2000, the figure peaked at 383 times. The ratio fell in the wake of the dot-com bubble and then in the financial crisis and its recession, but in 2010 the ratio began to rebound. According to an OECD report, rising incomes of the top 1 percent in the E.U. accounted for the rising income inequality in Europe in 2012, though that level of inequality was “notably less” than the one in the U.S.”[3]  Nevertheless, in both cases the increasing economic gap between the very rich and everyone else was not limited to the E.U. and U.S.; a rather pronounced global phenomenon of increasing economic inequality was clearly in the works by 2013.

Accordingly, much study has gone into discovering the causes and making prognoses both for capitalism and democracy, for extreme economic inequality puts “one person, one vote” at risk of becoming irrelevant at best. One question is particularly enticing—namely, can we distinguish the artificial, or “manmade,” sources of economic inequality from those innate in human nature? Natural differences include those from genetics, such as body type, beauty, and intelligence. Although unfair because no one deserves to be naturally prone to weight-gain, blindness, or a learning disability, no one is culpable in nature’s lot. No one is to be congratulated either, for a person is not born naturally beautiful or intelligent because someone else made it so. This is not to say that artifacts of society, as well as their designers and protectors, cannot or should not be praised or found blameworthy in how they positively or negatively impact whatever nature has deigned to give or withhold. It is the artificial type of inequalities, which exist only once a society has been formed, that can be subject to dispute, both morally and in terms of public policy.

A society's macro economic and political systems, as well as the society itself, can be designed to extenuate or diminish the level of inequalities artificially; it is also true that a design can be neutral, having no impact one way or the other on natural inequalities. How institutions, such as corporations, schools, and hospitals, are designed and run can also give rise to artificial inequalities. In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that to be fair, the design of a macro system or even an institution should benefit the least well off most. Under this rubric, artificial inequalities would tend to diminish existing inequalities. Unfortunately, a society’s existing power dynamics may work against such a trajectory, preferring ever increasing inequality because it is in the financial interests of the most powerful. Is it inevitable, one might ask, that as the human race continues to live in societies the very rich will get richer and richer while “those below” stagnate or get poorer? Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) distinguishes natural and artificial (or what he calls “moral”) inequalities with particular acuity and insight. He answers yes, but only until the moral inequalities reach a certain point. Even if his “state of nature” is impractical, we can make more sense of the growing economic inequalities globally but particularly in the U.S. by applying his theory.

1.Eduardo Porter, “Inequality in America: The Data is Sobering,” The New York Times, July 30, 2013.
2. Mark Gongloff, “CEOs Paid 273 Times More Than Workers in 2012: Study,” The Huffington Post, June 26, 2013.
3. Kaja B. Fredricksen, “Income Inequality in the European Union,” OECD, Economics Department Working Paper No. 952, 2012.