The Take

The Wealth Gap

January 21, 2017

This is not to deny the reality of the distress of redundant horse-carriage builders, whose very considerable, and often admirable, skills became redundant far quicker than the dinosaurs disappeared from the face of the earth. But it would be preposterous to suggest that, overall, we were not richer than we had been in the heyday of horse-carriage builders. Moreover, it is true that some inventions that make people immensely rich, though wanted and perhaps valued by millions, may be valueless, or worse than valueless, according to some scale of values sub specie aeternitatis. It is not difficult to imagine someone becoming immensely wealthy by the development of a website that ought never to have been developed.

Nor is it to deny that there is such a thing as illicit or dishonest enrichment, or that rules may be rigged. There is no market in which there is no rigging, either formal or informal, but I suspect that Oxfam’s preferred solution to an inevitable degree of rigging is complete rigging by philosopher kings such as themselves.

There is one sense in which I may by definition increase poverty if I grow richer. Suppose my wealth increases faster than that of most of the people in the society in which I live. The people in that society are poorer, relative to me, than they were before, even if, in absolute terms, they are all richer than they were before. This is not the same as active impoverishment. But since poverty is now usually defined in relative and not absolute terms, poverty can increase even where no one, not a single person, is the poorer. By the same token, a society can grow richer as everyone in it becomes poorer. This is absurd.

The question about the eight richest people in the world is not, or at least ought not to be, by how many times they are richer than other people, but whether by their wealth they have made others poorer. This question is not straightforward, for it might include the question as to whether people would have been richer if rules other than those under which they made their fortunes had been different. But in its present form, Oxfam’s propaganda is an incitement to envy, one of the seven deadly sins.

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