In Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, Don Watkins and Yaron Brook deconstruct and dismantle an ideology that, in their view, is contributing to the downfall of individual freedom in the West. To do so, they first establish a dichotomy between two fundamental views about inequality.
Take for example Steve Jobs, who built “one of the most successful companies in history, transforming the way we live and work.” One side of the debate views Jobs’ success and contributions to mankind as an inherent good, a man pursuing his love and gaining materially as a result. The other frames his success as unfair for others who couldn’t achieve the same relative material wealth.
Criticism of income inequality focuses on three things: “economic mobility, economic progress, and fairness.” In regards to economic mobility, proponents of income equality argue “the best proxy for opportunity is economic mobility.” In other words, the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich in an unequal system. On progress, the argument runs that rising inequality is responsible for an increasingly poorer lower class and a stagnating middle class; inequality is a barrier to societal progress. Regarding unfairness, the critique falls on those who did not earn their wealth through merit and effort but through exploitation, corruption, and rigging the system.
Conversely, proponents of success like Watkins and Brook don’t see income inequality as a barrier to human prosperity. Although they make practical arguments for their position, the heart of their stance is a moral one. Innovation and freedom have led to unprecedented wealth for all who are affected by it. Going further, they defend the very moral virtue of man thinking and trying to succeed as his own choice and disavow the use of force against him.
They believe that the only limit on one’s success is his ambition and ability. Other people’s success doesn’t detract from the quality of your life. In fact, other’s achievements generally make your life better. Freedom leads to economic inequality, yes, but also more prosperity for all.
To better understand this dichotomy the authors look at how this debate applies to the American Dream. Income inequality alarmists believe the American Dream is under threat because of income inequality. However, they mistakenly define the American Dream as “the dream of a land in which there is no opportunity for ability and achievement to create inequality.”
Compare that with how it was originally defined by the man who coined the term, “‘[the] dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The first view encourages one to see “his neighbor’s success as a threat to his self-esteem. And as such, everything in life is a zero-sum game.” The latter definition entices people to admire and emulate success while the former leaders to envy.
The authors are, however, concerned with political equality. Political equality is the recognition of individual rights, that all people are equal under the law, and that no one should tread on someone else’s rights.
The only way to prevent economic inequality or “rectify” it after the fact is through the use of offensive violence. Success gained through government handouts, regulation, and fraud, therefore, is not a result of freedom and laissez-faire capitalism. Instead, it is coercion forced upon one for the sake of another.
The policies touted by income equality proponents don’t prop up the “have-nots.” The authors write that “instead they involve demanding more from the successful: via the welfare state, via unions, via regulations.” These policies can even create obstacles in the road to achievement for people currently in the lower and middle-income brackets.
Defending freedom and free markets requires our ability to address so-called “problems” like income inequality that opponents to individual freedoms pose. Everyone who reads Equal is Unfair will walk away better equipped to defend these values on practical, rational, and moral grounds.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.