Why severe inequality is never justified

Many on the political right argue that attempts to confront inequality violate individual freedom. They're wrong. 

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It’s easy to find shocking statistics on inequality. In the financial year ending 2018, the richest 20 per cent of UK households earned 47 per cent of all income, whilst the poorest 20 per cent earned just 4 per cent. The statistics on wealth inequality are even starker, with the richest 10 per cent of households holding 44 per cent of all wealth, and the poorest 50 per cent owning just nine per cent. This level of inequality is not inevitable: the gap between rich and poor is much greater today than it was in the 1960s and 70s.

Across the political spectrum, many argue that inequality is bad for society. In their book The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson show that, across a range of health and social problems, the outcomes are worse the more unequal the society is. Severe inequality also damages democratic processes, as the wealthy buy political influence to protect their class interests. And, of course, many believe that extreme inequality is bad simply because it is unfair, that no single person deserves billions more than the vast majority of her fellow citizens.

While few think inequality is a good thing, many on the political right argue that public action aimed at confronting inequality disregards something even more important: individual freedom. It’s a good thing if wealthy philanthropists help those less fortunate than themselves, but it’s a gross violation to individual freedom to “force” the wealthy to assist the poor through the taxation system.

The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick even went so far as to compare taxation to slave labour. For Nozick, there was no significant moral difference between the state taxing its citizens’ hourly wages and forcing them to work a set number of hours; according to Nozick, we should be as resistant to the former as we are towards the latter.

The traditional antagonisms between left and right stem from a perennial struggle between ideals of equality and freedom. Even if we accept the right to individual freedom and take that right to be absolute, the argument against confronting inequality falls apart as soon as we examine the supposedly “free” use of land and natural resources in liberal democracies today.

Although it's plausible that an individual has a natural right to the fruits of her labour, it is not at all plausible that some individuals have more of a natural right than others to the world’s resources. Imagine a group of people arrive on an uninhabited island. Suppose the only freshwater supply on the island consists of a lake on its west side. Clearly, none of the new citizens of this island has any greater right to drink, fish, and swim in the lake than any other.

But now imagine that one family – let’s call them the Smiths – seize control of the lake and force anyone who wants water to compensate them. Over time, the Smiths’ ownership of the lake becomes codified in a system of laws and customs, and control of it passes to their descendants, who subsequently enjoy a significantly higher quality of life due to the compensation they receive from their fellow islanders.

In this context, what would violate individual freedom: enforcing these customs and punishing those who find ways of using the lake without paying, or passing new laws requiring the Smiths to give some of the compensation they receive back to the community? Surely not the latter. If anything, the latter seems inadequate. The Smiths had no natural right over the lake in the first place; they just happened to be strong enough to take control of it. So, why should society allow and even support their profiting from the lake at the expense of others?

Of course, the Smiths will object. They are used to treating the lake as theirs. They may offer arguments about the improvements they have made to the lake, the value of maintaining well-functioning social structures, or the insurance they provide that the lake will not be polluted or have its fishing stocks depleted. But these considerations don’t mean the Smiths have an inalienable right to the entirety of their lake-based income. At best, some of the lake’s current value may be due to the Smiths’ labour, in which case a 100 per cent tax on the Smiths’ income might be inappropriate.

This simplified caricature has significant parallels with the real world: many of the deep problems facing our societies – from the cost of housing to the collapse of ecosystems – are due in part to the massively unequal control exerted over land and natural resources.

Half of England is owned by less than 1 per cent of the country, while the average family must save for 19 years in order to put a deposit on a house. That 1 per cent does not control these natural resources because they have worked harder than the rest of us; they control them because of historical class divides and explicit violence against indigenous peoples. In a rather frank admission, the last Duke of Westminster, when asked what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs, replied: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.”

The current distribution of property is grossly unjust, and leaves some people profiting from the world’s resources at the expense of others. And the fiction that this distribution is somehow fair, or that it reflects the fruits of people's labour, impedes essential reform.   

Primary school teachers often tell their students a story about a man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Is what he did wrong? Students’ responses invariably fall along a spectrum between two answers: the thief did something wrong because the bread belonged to a shopkeeper, or he did nothing wrong because the shopkeeper’s property right wasn’t as important as the lives of the thief and his family.

Teachers rarely encourage students to think beyond these answers. As adults, few of us do either. In fact, most people’s views on redistributive taxation reflect some combination of the answers above. The tragedy is that we rarely question the conventions of freedom and ownership assumed as the backdrop to the story – the barriers, physical or otherwise, that leave people starving outside the bakery door.

David Faraci is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. He works in ethics and epistemology. Philip Goff is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. He is the author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness and he tweets @philip_goff. 

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.