‘The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality‘—A Review

Is a left-wing author allowed to believe in genetics? The question is only partially sarcastic: Doctrinaire progressives are inclined to cringe (at least for public consumption) at the idea that one’s DNA might drive real differences that shape our lives. Indeed, the whole concept is seen as a means of justifying social inequality, and perhaps even a step down the slippery slope to eugenics.

But there’s been pushback among some progressives recently, based on the idea that anyone who cares about equity or social justice should care about genes. After all, the genes we get are purely a function of luck—an unfair and unequal system of advantages and disadvantages whose effects can be addressed through public policy. In this regard, at least, genes aren’t too different from other forms of “privilege” that progressives talk about all the time.

Last year, the socialist writer Fredrik deBoer floated this sort of argument in The Cult of Smart, a book that was long on provocative ideas, but lacking in scientific explanation. In The Genetic Lottery: How DNA Matters for Social Equality, soon to be published by Princeton University Press, behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden expertly addresses that shortcoming.

Kathryn Paige Harden, posing with her book in a recently posted social-media photo

Part of Harden’s task is simply to distance genetic research from some of the policies and ideas with which it’s sometimes been historically associated. She acknowledges and condemns the role that genetic science has played in eugenics, for example, and reiterates her skepticism (prominently aired in a co-authored 2017 Vox article) of the idea that genetic differences are linked to a racial IQ gap. Most importantly, she expertly sets out the current state of genetic research, and argues the philosophical case that what we know about the subject is consistent with an egalitarian worldview. The book feels incomplete, however, when it comes to the question of how society should be restructured to address the inequities linked to the genetic lottery.

* * *

The scientific idea that one’s genes affect one’s life outcomes isn’t novel. During the early Cold War period, researchers already were conducting systematic “behavioral genetics” studies on different types of siblings, twins in particular. Identical twins share twice as much genetic material as fraternal twins; so if genes are important, then, other factors being equal, the life outcomes of identical-twin pairs should be more similar than those of fraternal-twin pairs. When you read that a given trait is estimated to be “X percent genetic,” with Y percent attributed to “shared environment,” and Z percent to “unshared environment,” someone is probably citing a twin study.

This work generally has tended toward the conclusion that genes have a strong effect on most traits, though rarely an effect that is all-powerful. However, there are some skeptics, especially on the Left, who dismiss such findings; claiming, for instance, that identical twins’ similarity in life outcomes might originate in their being treated alike precisely because they present to their parents and others as identical, and not because they happen to have the same genes. In the past decade or so, however, behavioral geneticists have moved beyond these traditional experimental designs, and are now more focused on individuals’ actual DNA.

One new technique allows researchers to compare siblings—not just twins, but all full siblings—by reference to the random genetic draw each received from their parents. By chance, some sibling pairs are more genetically similar than others, because their random DNA draws happened to pick up more of the same parental source. (Harden, for example, reports that she shares just 44.6 percent of her genes with her brother, well below the expected average of about 50 percent.)

If sibling pairs that are more genetically similar also tend to have more similar life outcomes, we can be confident that the relationship is one of causation—not mere correlation—because the genetic similarities emerge from a random process. (It’s similar to any randomized scientific experiment, only nature is doing the randomization for us.) In general, this research shows us that the conclusions drawn by researchers in early twin studies were correct. However, the various methods do produce somewhat different estimates of the effect of genes—which Harden depicts in a useful chart summarizing research that’s been conducted in the areas of education, height, age at first birth, and body-mass index. (Heritability estimates for educational attainment, for instance, range from roughly 20 to 40 percent, depending on which research technique one applies.) But the bottom line is that genes really do matter greatly for a wide range of important outcomes. One analytical method, for instance, suggests that genes associated with educational attainment predict one’s adult income level about as well as does one’s parents’ income level. And someone with a high score on this genetic metric is several times as likely to graduate college as someone with a low score.

But at this point, let’s back up for a moment. As some informed readers may already have noted, the idea that a gene may “cause” this or that trait isn’t as simple as my language might suggest. As Harden explains, genes don’t operate in a vacuum, but instead express themselves within human societies characterized by their own unique biases, technologies, cultural practices, economic structures, and educational systems. To the extent that genes can be said to cause anything, they do so in a way that’s influenced by environmental context.

As sociologist Christopher Jencks once pointed out, in a society that refused to educate redheads, a gene for redheadedness would be seen as a “cause” of illiteracy: If you randomly assigned a child to possess that gene, the child would grow up unable to read. The resulting redhead/brunette gap would be nominally associated with a genetic marker, but the gap would hardly be intractable, because society could fix it by being more equitable to redheads. The wide availability of eyeglasses, a technology that addresses genetic disadvantages associated with bad eyesight, is a non-hypothetical example that shows how the effects of a genetic difference can vary widely based on the societal or technological environment in which that difference is expressed.

So, in thinking through how genetic findings affect social policy, we can’t stop at the conclusion that genes cause some set percentage of outcomes: We need to flesh out how they cause those outcomes, and ask if these processes could reasonably be changed.

As Harden notes, the genes that affect educational attainment are expressed in the brain, begin affecting development early in life, and seem to affect both intelligence and non-cognitive skills. It immediately occurs to the reader that it’s hard to imagine a modern world in which intelligence and non-cognitive skills don’t affect how far one goes in school—though of course we can make life better for people who are born with bad genetic luck in this area, including by improving their education.

Jencks’s cautionary theoretical tale about red hair is instructive, too, because there are plenty of ways in which our genes set in motion positive or negative environmental feedback loops. Harden reports, for instance, that children with genes associated with academic success also tend to get more intellectual stimulation from their parents. Our genes also contribute to how we’re parented more generally, and how attractive we are perceived to be.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that comprehensively addressing the unfairness caused by genes couldn’t be accomplished merely by making everyone less bigoted. In fact, as bigotries and other artificial limitations fall away—i.e., as we come closer to achieving the “equality of opportunity” associated with a free and tolerant society—genes can actually have a more pronounced effect on outcomes, because those with genetic gifts are held back less often. Harden discusses some fascinating studies in this regard. In Estonia, for instance, genes for educational attainment were shown to produce an increased advantage for those children who came of age after the Soviet withdrawal in 1994. The same is true of recent cohorts of American women, who’ve been less constrained by traditional gender roles than were their forebears.

And so, to truly address the unfair social outcomes associated with genes, we’d need to go beyond the usual principles of free-market liberalism, and address the enormous economic dividends paid to those of us who possess highly remunerative skills that have genetic underpinnings. And this brings us to some of the shortcomings of Harden’s book.

* * *

Harden is correct that none of us did anything to “earn” our genes; nor, for that matter, the homes into which we were born. As she notes, when you combine the “shared environment” factors with the estimated genetic effects in twin studies, these (unearned) causes explain most of what there is to explain—with the leftover portion comprising a sort of “free will” residual, which serves to illustrate why even identical twins growing up together will end up on (at least somewhat) different paths. That residual figure tends to be around 20 percent or so for educational outcomes, and about twice that for income.

Harden is also right that we can recognize the power of genes without invoking them to justify inequality as a “natural” phenomenon. Genes do explain, to some extent, why some people are more economically productive, and thus earn more than others, given the demands of a modern economy. But, again, genes are just luck. And the structure of the economy is something we can change.

At the micro level, Harden has a lot of useful insights and suggestions. For example, she points out that our policies can either narrow or widen genetic inequalities. Some interventions seem to help people with a genetic predisposition toward obesity, for example; while cigarette taxes seem to help reduce smoking more among people who are not especially at risk genetically, leaving those with the most intractable addictions to pay the price every time they feed their habit. She also urges researchers not to ignore genetics when they study people’s traits and efforts to change them (an argument that many Quillette readers have been familiar with since 2017).

But looking beyond such abstract considerations, a reader is left grappling with the enormous challenge to traditional concepts of “meritocracy” and free-market economics that Harden’s analysis implicitly presents. In this area, I found The Genetic Lottery a bit thin, perhaps because the author’s expertise is rooted in genetics rather than, say, modes of economic redistribution. She outlines the philosophical principles at play nicely, with the requisite hat-tips to John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” but doesn’t quite succeed in showing us how a genetically-informed Rawlsian policymaking approach would work in practice.

Harden writes that school curricula can be structured in a way that’s “equity-promoting” or “performance-maximizing.” But it isn’t clear what the best tradeoff between these two goals is. If you focus educational efforts on the lowest-ability students, you might bring everyone up to an important baseline of mathematical and verbal skill. But teaching to the highest-ability students might drive more achievement at the top of our economy, with more inventions and medical breakthroughs that help everyone (including people born in the future, whatever their genes). The tradeoff involves not only raw, utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, but also the question of how much we subjectively value equity for its own sake.

Thinking about this kind of tradeoff leads a reader to larger questions that extend well beyond the classroom. Capitalism pushes us to use our talents for the good of others, if only to be compensated in return. This keeps us busy working, and produces a wellspring of goods, services, and discoveries—but also allows some of us get far richer than others. (Harden acknowledges this “instrumental” value of the market processes that create inequality.) On top of that, of course, many people (Americans in particular) see economic freedom as good in itself. And so modern welfare states seek to harness the productive efficiencies and freedoms associated with capitalism, while also addressing poverty and low social mobility through taxes, transfer payments, regulations, education incentives, and so on (which is why, in almost all developed countries, government spending tends to fall roughly between 40 and 60 percent of GDP). Most forms of policy disagreement in these countries are rooted, in one way or another, in questions relating to how big this social safety net should be and how it should be structured.

Harden clearly thinks the US safety net should be stronger than it is, but her case for this barely rises beyond a sketch. There’s little engagement, for example, with longstanding and complicated academic debates over the roots of American poverty and inequality, including the question of whether generous social programs might create perverse incentives. And so while Harden cites the power of genes and family background as evidence that our understanding of “personal responsibility” is overblown, she doesn’t really get into the weeds of what kind of policy change should follow from this insight.

To be fair to Harden, she set out to write a book that required her to speak as a geneticist, a philosopher, and a policy wonk, and she succeeded quite well on two of three counts. At the very least, she made a much-needed case for the proposition that progressives cannot continue to ignore the reality of human genetics.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/08/the-genetic-lottery-why-dna-matters-for-social-equality-a-review/
1 Like

Some issues come up for me in regard to trying to engineer “equality” among differently genetically endowed individuals. As stated, one could intentionally focus educational resources on the least intellectually capable, so as to reduce the social advantage of the most capable (the “equity-promoting” alternative in the article). However, there are substantial limitations on what can be taught; remedial education has serious limits in how far up one can boost those without sufficient native abilities. And, even if deprived of any special courses or curricula, those pesky bright people may use the school or public libraries, or other unofficial resources, to learn faster and more anyway, preserving the inequality of eventual capability. I suspect that any such attempt at (relatively) equalizing educational and social outcomes will inevitably come around to forcibly restricting the ability of talented students to develop themselves - a Harrison Bergeron sort of solution to inequality. Boosting the slow learners is just not nearly enough by itself to sufficiently equalize outcomes - you need to intentionally hamper or restrict the fast learners, which is likely far easier anyway. It’s hard to see that as a more just and equitable world, for most people.

In social contexts, we don’t know what degree of genetic luck is involved in a particular persons operational abilities - versus the degree to which they have worked harder to learn and apply. This conception of equality is inevitably going to penalize “making the most of your genetic endowment” alongside “coasting on your genetic endowment without little effort” because the two are too hard to distinguish. Likewise on the other end of the spectrum, is a student who does not learn hampered by a reduced ability to learn, or by lack of will or incentive to apply themselves?

I see the core dynamic of a meritocracy-oriented social system as “more rewards for those who contribute more to the society, so that people are incentivized to contribute”. In that dynamic, it doesn’t matter whether one has “more natural talent” or “tries harder” - the contribution created by either is valued similarly. Obviously, there are big questions about what counts as a valued contribution, and who or what decides, worth exploring. I’m not going to try to address all of those questions now; I’m just noting the value of creating differential rewards with the same general slope as differential contributions. If you work 40 hours moving rocks, you earn more than if the same person spends 30 hours, because they have accomplished more. If one person moves rocks faster than another, they may or may not get more reward, but they certainly should not get less reward. Comparing moving rocks with picking raspberries is going to be more complex, and we are going to have to discuss markets, including imperfections. And “how much more” reward is a huge issue - should CEO’s earn 1000 times as much as an average employee, or what? The values of having a positive slope in rewards for larger contributions does not need to mean a steep slope, or even a linear (much less exponential) slope. I don’t believe that the CEOs who earn 1000 times the average wage today, are smarter or harder working then the CEOs who earned 100 times the average wage some few decades ago. So there’s still a lot to discuss, even if we accept this basic conception of meritocracy.

7 Likes

Likewise conservatives by waving away responsibility for inequalities with just a pair of boot straps.

2 Likes

Good article. The answer to innate differences in ability has to be heterodox economics applied from about 14 onwards in the school system. We wouldn’t ask kids to repeatedly run and exclusively train for a 400 metre race and make it the sole measure by which they can succeed of fail. But this is exactly what we are doing when we value academic attainment (and by extension, innate intelligence) above all else.

Of course, academic attainment is valuable, as is innate intelligence, but it not the sole characteristic by which an individual can succeed in society, even if its possession is far more predictive of success than any other trait. So we need to look elsewhere for opportunities in which to train large swathes of the population. In 2019, there were 7 million vacant blue collar jobs in the American economy, many of them starting on or around the $60,000 mark. To not have an education system which gears the young who don’t do well academically towards the attainment of these jobs seems at best negligent, and at worst criminal.

And this is but a small portion of what is achievable in real terms. There is ample evidence to suggest now that America is structurally underproducing the number of single family needed to meet demand. A part of this is because of local planning bureaucracies. The fact that in many areas anyone can object to any new housing, regardless of their legal standing, means that anyone can effectively place any new building project on hold for what amounts to an indefinite period- often adding five or low six digit costs to the price per home per project. A more staunch defence of private property rights and a civic libertarian ethos would see people only able to object if they had direct standing to object to a particular development- by initially arguing that the value of their own property or home would be negatively impacted by the new development.

With a more ready supply of labour generated by a school system which is vocationally geared for those who don’t do well at school, we have one of the ingredients for an upsurge in home building capacity. Another method might be to provide structural incentives for the major firms to act as franchise holders and wholesalers of building materials to small entrepreneurial start-ups. They could also act as agencies specialising is services to aid the smaller building firms, offering everything from architectural services, to tax planning and accountancy, to payroll services, factored insurance, health and safety provision and expert specialist services to navigate everything from planning bureaucracies to rent-seeking regulatory requirements.

But the tax incentives would need to be quite strong in order to empower a renaissance and resurgence in American homebuilding. One way to pay for it would be to gradually ease off the generous capital depreciation offered on housing. It’s certainly not a feature of most of the tax systems in most advanced economies. Crucially, its one of the reasons why the Chinese and other corporate interests, most recently in the form of investment groups like BlackRock, have invested in housing. The capital depreciation on housing can be used a a vehicle for tax avoidance, as a form of net loss carry forward used to defer profits made in other more productive areas of the economy.

On the part of government, this capital depreciation is based upon a faulty theory of stimulating house building. Their is ample evidence now to suggest that demand side stimulation of the housing sector, doesn’t stimulate supply one iota. If the proof from the American housing sector were not enough, we can easily look to more extreme cases like the UK. What it does do is inflate price without adding value, which stimulates another type of economic growth- the artificial stimulation of mortgages as a debt asset. And as the total sum of mortgage borrowing per home increases, servicing interest relative to repayment increases in ratio, with 40 year mortgages likely to become increasingly prevalent in the American economy if current trends continue.

So what does all this have to do with IQ and genetics I hear you ask? Well, because the effects of environment, nurture and socio-economics are modest, they do exist, and generating the type of benign economic and social conditions for economic opportunity and stable family formation is likely to produce a not insignificant boost the population level intelligence, overall. In particular, this would likely have a larger impact upon those who are not best served by American economic and social conditions.

This is a Swedish Adoption Study measuring IQ differences between genetic full siblings, with one adopted and the other remaining in place with the existing family. We actually have three things going on here, in terms of IQ gains and losses. First, a gain from socio-economics- as you can see the further up the socio-economic spectrum a child is placed the greater the IQ gain. Second, the family status of the adoptive home- as you can see an equal or minor shift in downward economic quintile actually results in a gain of IQ of between three and just under four points of IQ.

So what is going on here? In net American terms we are seeing a positive effect from what would amount to between a $5,000 and $10,000 loss in household income, after taxes and transfers. Well, first we are likely seeing a shift from single parent households to two parent households. But more importantly we are likely seeing a shift from single parent households to two parent households in the community in which a child grows up.

For all sorts of reasons, there is a form of social homogeneity which emerges as a form of self-segregation. We see this in the UK, where there has never been segregation in terms of race, yet many towns like Oldham have distinct neighbourhoods based on ethnic differences. To a lesser extent the same is likely of family structures. If you are young couple, you are likely to be attracted to areas composed of other young couples. Likewise single parents are likely to be drawn to areas where there are ample creche facilities and support services.

And this is where the third factor comes into play. Because although drastic downwards shifts in socio-economic status are quite uncommon, because of a lesser likelihood of two parent families meeting the criteria for adoption, we can see that there is quite a profound differences between a small net economic drop in circumstances and a profound one. Some of this is likely purely material, but there is another element in play. Couples in lower socio-economic circumstances are far less likely to be able to exercise choice as to where they live. As a result, their adoptive children are far more likely to find themselves growing up in peer groups primarily composed of the children of single parent families.

This may seem tenuous and a stretch, until one considers the data on social mobility gathered through Dr Raj Chetty’s landmark study on social mobility, which tracked the economic progress of every child in America over a given period. With it, he conclusively proved that the single most important factor in a child’s developed, more important even than quality of education, and most especially for boys, is the proportion of fathers in the community in which a child grows up. This article from Slate best sums up the conclusions of Dr Raj Chetty’s work before the political climate became too contentious to state the obvious:

We know that intelligence is correlated with economic success. We know that fathers are corelated with improved cognitive development, although the effects tend to be minor in general and seem to be more far more causative when we specifically examine higher levels of father engagement. We know that parental engagement in general is crucially important to educational outcomes, especially during the formative pre-school years where activities like reading to a child, and later getting them to read to you, can provide a significant advantage to kids who are beneficiaries of this nurture, and crucially two parent structures are likely to skew towards the benign conditions which provides higher levels of parental engagement.

But to borrow a phrase, it takes a village so to speak. And this influence of low rates of fathers and high rates of single parenthood is most likely to be felt through peer group. If one has read Judith Rich Harris then you will know that she doesn’t downplay the role of genetics. Crucially, her research tends to support the conclusion that peer groups play a more significant role than parents in determining outcomes and peer group has certainly been shown to key influence in educational outcomes.

But there is a caveat, when one considers the data on both social mobility and the Swedish Adoption Study the picture changes somewhat. Although parenting might be a weak force compared to peer group, the evidence would tend to suggest that it aggregates through a parental pool of benign influence felt at the community level. We see these effect most strongly in relation to schools which are able to choose

TBC

3 Likes

But teaching to the highest-ability students might drive more achievement at the top of our economy, with more inventions and medical breakthroughs that help everyone

This is where TFM stops producing optimal results. Since the system is now one in which the working poor are basically doomed, huge amounts of effort are made by rich families to keep themselves on the free-ride side of the economic wave. Thus rich families will bequest five million bucks to Harvard to get their kid in irrespective of the fact that he’s a moron (think Donald Trump). That one has been to Harvard flags one as a member of the Plutocracy and thus entitled to privilege – to borrow a term from the woke. This is the modern equivalent of the aristocracy of old – one is born to idle wealth or born to grinding labor and poverty.

But if one’s gifts were in effect shared with the rest of society then, as the author suggests, this dog eat dog class struggle need not occur. Yes, the talented and ambitious should be noticeably richer than the burger-flipper but not obscenely so, and the latter should still live at a respectable standard.

Consider the Cuban medical system: There are no knife fights to get into medical school in Cuba because a doctor there is not very much better off than a cane cutter. You go to medical school because you belong there and the cane cutter is happy with that because he knows the doctor really is competent, not some sort of DIE/quota filler. People end up where they belong, and that’s efficient.

1 Like

Ummmmmmmmm Luck? How about evolutionary selection for useful traits? Luck? There is nothing lucky about evolution. Survival of the fittest isn’t luck. The chances that certain genes are passed to certain people and not others in the human species is also not luck. I did not randomly select my partner and they did not randomly select me. It wasn’t luck, it was trait selection.

Luck might be that I was born in the US and not N. Korea (but isn’t that also a function of genes?)…but genes aren’t luck.

2 Likes

You know, Ray, I typically enjoy reading your comments and consider them thought-provoking. But this statement pisses me off:

“Thus rich families will bequest five million bucks to Harvard to get their kid in irrespective of the fact that he’s a moron (think Donald Trump). That one has been to Harvard flags one as a member of the Plutocracy and thus entitled to privilege – to borrow a term from the woke. This is the modern equivalent of the aristocracy of old – one is born to idle wealth or born to grinding labor and poverty.”

Really? Again with Donald Trump? Surely there are scores of others similarly situated worthy of your scorn. And further, what to make of the race- and class-driven acceptance criteria that has been de rigueur for at least a generation?

I don’t necessarily disagree that there isn’t a plutocracy; I only question its members.

4 Likes

No doubt! Still Trump comes to mind. The man is genuinely stupid. I’d be surprised if his IQ is over 80.

It seems the game is to let in all sorts of unqualified POC thru the front door as a smokescreen for the unqualified kids of alumni let in the back door. It’s a scam either way you look at it.

Do question it. There is a new ascendancy of Victims grabbing for the money and the power, no? So far they’ve reach an accommodation with the Ancien Regime – DIE coordinators being hired left and right but manufacturing still in 3d world sweatshops – but how long will power be shared? White Democrats browning the country as fast as they can and presuming that they themselves will remain in control. Stay tuned for a rude surprise. Probably Marx would laugh, didn’t he say something about capitalism digging it’s own grave?

2 Likes

One day we may have reasonably enough of anything for everyone. People will naturally find and do what they are good at and enjoy, differences be damned. It won’t be utopia though, the foe will be entirely different. I concern that we would be in a position to look at the foe objectively without choice. Until now, it seems, everyone unconsciously decides a foe of sorts to keep things ‘exciting’. Quite a low bar as excitement impedes sober thinking(though it does inform via retrospection). Maybe we will go as far as to fully identify negativity ‘itself’ as the enemy being inside of ourselves. Wouldn’t that be grand! Metanoia!

1 Like

Thank you, you definitely bring up important points in your reply. It’s like a version of Helter Skelter minus the dune buggies in the desert. When will the non whites wake up to their use and abuse as patsies for the true privileged few?

More and more I get this Last Days feeling – the end of our civilization is nigh and there’s not a damn thing can be done to stop it. Or not. We’ve had Last Days before and pulled thru. America in particular has been rotten with corruption before. One can see wokeness as just another of the moral panics that have gripped America many times in the past, but the fever breaks eventually. Or is it down for the count this time? The falcon cannot hear the falconer. The Rough Beast has made his appearance. The disgusting thing, standing where it aught not and speaking blasphemies. It’s a good time to be a Christian apocalyptic.

2 Likes

A lot of conservatives don’t view inequality as a problem to be solved. They view it as a predictable outcome of differences in ability and/or genetic endowments.

8 Likes

I don’t like that framing, either. It’s like saying my green eyes are just due to luck in the genetic lottery. Uh, no. My mom has green eyes and my dad has blue eyes. Since blue eyes are a recessive trait, my eye color was highly predictable; ie, the opposite of luck.

I guess one could say “well, it’s framed that way to point out that you didn’t do anything to earn your green eyes or your above average IQ; what it really means is that you were lucky to be born to parents with that combination of traits” which is more or less true, but that said, I don’t know if I find this terribly meaningful. Does it really create any special obligations on the part of the lucky to the unlucky? If you win the lottery, does that give you an obligation to share your good fortune with strangers who played the lottery and (predictably) didn’t win? Does Lebron James’ great skill and success at the game of basketball create an obligation to share his good fortune with perhaps the worst basketball player on the planet (ie, me)? Hell no!

3 Likes

Paywalled. What is the answer that is less obvious than I think?

1 Like

Here’s an excerpt but it’s really worth reading in full.

“Even if economic inequality is not a problem in and of itself, it can still have bad effects. Great disparities of income and wealth, of the kind we see in the United States today, can have damaging effects even when nobody is badly off in absolute terms. For example, the wealthiest may be able to exert a disproportionate share of political influence and to shape society in conformity with their interests. They may be able to make the law work for them rather than for everyone, and so undermine the rule of law. Enough economic inequality can transform a democracy into a plutocracy, a society ruled by the rich.
Large inequalities of inherited wealth can be particularly damaging, creating, in effect, an economic caste system that inhibits social mobility and undercuts equality of opportunity.
Extreme inequality can also have subtler and more insidious effects, which are especially pronounced when those who have the least are also poor and lack adequate resources, but which may persist even if everyone has enough. The rich may persuade themselves that they fully deserve their enormous wealth and develop attitudes of entitlement and privilege. Those who have less may develop feelings of inferiority and deference, on the one hand, and hostility and resentment on the other. In this way, extreme inequality can distort people’s view of themselves and compromise their relations with one another.
This brings us to a more fundamental point. The great political philosopher John Rawls thought that a liberal society should conceive of itself as a fair system of cooperation among free and equal people. Often, it seems, we do like to think of ourselves that way. We know that our society has always been blighted by grave injustices, beginning with the great moral catastrophe of slavery, but we aspire to create a society of equals, and we are proud of the steps we have taken toward that ideal.
But extreme inequality makes a mockery of our aspiration. In a society marked by the spectacular inequalities of income and wealth that have emerged in the United States in the past few decades, there is no meaningful sense in which all citizens, rich and poor alike, can nevertheless relate to one another on an equal footing. Even if poverty were eliminated and everyone had enough resources to lead a decent life, that would not by itself transform American citizenship into a relationship among equals. There is a limit to the degree of economic inequality that is compatible with the ideal of a society of equals and, although there is room for disagreement about where exactly the limit lies, it is clear that we have long since exceeded it.
If extreme economic inequality undermines the ideal of a society of equals, then is that merely one of its bad effects, like its corrupting influence on the political process? Or, instead, is that simply what it is for economic inequality to matter as such?
For practical purposes, it doesn’t make much difference which answer we give. In either case, the imperative that Professor Frankfurt identified — the imperative to ensure that all citizens have enough resources to lead decent lives — is of the utmost importance. It is appalling that so many people in a society as wealthy as ours continue to lack adequate housing, nutrition, medical care and education, and do not enjoy the full benefits of the rule of law. But addressing Professor Frankfurt’s imperative is not enough. Extreme economic inequality, whether it matters as such or “merely” for its effects, is pernicious. It threatens to transform us from a democracy into a plutocracy, and it makes a mockery of the ideal of equal citizenship.”

2 Likes

To add insult to injury there’s this gem

And this is also mind blowingly incorrect. We ‘earned’ our genes because our lineage made good genetic decision along the way and didn’t break their neck in the gene pool so to speak. My kids ‘earned’ their genes from my and my partner’s decisions and their grand parents, etc. This bestows on them a lot of beneficial factors in life.

It’s like saying homo sapiens don’t deserve the genes they have because it was luck and literally ever other deviation of monkey died. This article is blindingly daft across the board! It’s great for a sanctimonious blather, but terrible for actual evolutionary biology.

5 Likes

Eh, that’s a deceptive subhead, I’d say, because that argument was very obvious. So obvious I’ve heard it at least a dozen times from people on the left. I can’t say I found it terribly convincing any of those times, either. If we’re worried about plutocracy, how much more money do we think the plutocrats need before they take over? Seriously, what are Bezos and company waiting for? What will, say, $4-5 trillion buy them that they can’t buy now? How much money do they need to overthrow American democracy? Can I posit that the answer is actually that money isn’t the big determinant of public policy in this country, and that fears of imminent plutocracy are overblown if not completely irrational?

Secondly, the “how will unequal people relate to each other?” question is just plain silly. Uh, as citizens, maybe? As fellow English-speakers or members of the same community or nation? As people raised and educated in a common culture? How do people relate to each other now?

Lastly, I would add that the “feelings” blather here is pretty weak, too. Rich, entitled jerks are as old as civilization itself. I’m willing to believe that higher levels of inequality may result in more jerkiness from these people, but it’s important to keep in mind that the rich are few in number by definition, so I don’t know that we need to fear an upheaval in social relations because the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing. And as for the flipside, if Elon Musk’s eleven figure net worth makes you feel resentful or inadequate, might it be that the problem is you, not Elon Musk?

10 Likes

So that little french revolution rerun in the form of minorities uniting with leftists entrenching ideology & enforcing policy guillotining every white male in their path is nothing to fear? I thought that’s all conservatives cared about. Don’t fear unjust inequalities & barbaric vigilantism has a habit of showing up….