Scott Sumner has a superb piece up today, on the different kinds of inequality:
2. Inequality of talent. Some people are blessed with the ability of a Michael Jordon, or a Brad Pitt.
3. Inequality if liberty. I know one Chinese person who used to listen to Russian classical music very quietly, least the neighbors overheard. It was viewed as counter-revolutionary, and she could have gotten in a lot of trouble. Least we think America doesn’t have these problems, think of the many 100,000s of people in prison for using drugs.
4. Inequality of money (i.e. income/wealth/consumption.)
5. Inequality of personality. I know one part time instructor who always looks happy. He always whistles while he walks, and greets people with enthusiasm. He’s about 85. And I know lots of grouchy professors making 5 times more money.
6. Inequality of mental health–actually just a more extreme version of point 5–but a big driver of utility. . . .
13. Inequality of preferences. I am cursed with expensive taste. If I walk into a rug store, my eyes are immediately attracted to the most expensive oriental carpet. My daughter just bought a teal shag carpet from Target that she likes. Lucky her.
14. Inequality of pain. A hugely underrated factor in utility. And let’s not forget the poor hypochondriacs. There is no statement more stupid in the entire English language than “it’s all in your head.” Everything is all in your head, including pain. See the studies of phantom limbs. Pain is pain.
And so forth. The whole list is required reading, because it underlines the strangeness of some people’s preoccupation with inequality of money. (Sumner says these people are economists, but I’ve known plenty of non-economists for whom that’s true as well.) He concludes:
It’s important to keep in mind that there is much more to life than income inequality, and much more to the world than the US. In the grand scheme of things, tinkering with government programs to help the poor, pitiful, beleaguered American middle class isn’t likely to make much difference, at least from a utilitarian perspective. We need to broaden our outlook.
That’s more or less my main problem with redistributionist rhetoric in Britain. OK, you want to improve the lives of the worst-off – good for you. But why do you only focus on Britain when we know that even the poorest Britons are better off than the "Bottom Billion"? If I was a socialist, I wouldn’t care about the NHS, the welfare state, or the "99%". I’d be fighting for more free trade, more open borders and (in the US especially) more liberal drug laws – things that will benefit the truly worst-off. Indeed, those are already the things that I try to fight for – they are so fundamental to improving people’s happiness that they should transcend ideological lines.
There are lots of different inequalities and wealth inequality is an important one. Caring about the poor shouldn’t stop at a border’s edge, and shouldn’t prioritise people who are nearby over people who are far away. Especially if they’re still among the richest people in the world.