Inequality Trap

Inequality Trap September 4, 2015

In a forthcoming book on The Inequality Trap, William Watson argues that the contemporary obsession with inequality is both an error and a trap.

An error because “inequality, unlike poverty, is not the problem it is so widely presumed to be. Inequality can be good, it can be bad, and it can be neither good nor bad but benign.” While we may need ways of addressing various kinds of inequality, “we do not need, and it would be a mistake to adopt a single perspective or policy for inequality writ large.” Ignoring the varieties inequality is not only lacks finesse, but can produce injustices: “A one-size-fits-all perspective or policy would involve us in meaningful and costly injustice, even, in the now ubiquitous but not always meaningful term social injustice” (xi).

Inequality is also a trap, one of our own making, because it “leads us to focus on the top end of the income distribution when our preoccupation should instead be the bottom, where the bulk of human misery almost certainly resides.” That qualified statement indicates Watson’s realistic recognition that “not everyone miserable is poor and not everyone poor is miserable.” Some currently poor people (medical students) are the future rich. Others are “stuck in poverty for the duration—for their duration, which may be shorter as a result of their poverty.” Their poverty doesn’t make it impossible for them to live good lives, but it does limit “their opportunities and in particular their chance to enjoy the fascinating and alluring gadgets, entertainments, and experiences, notably travel, that define modern affluence” (xi-xii).

Watson thinks that the more serious distraction is that obsession with inequality focuses on opposition to capitalism, which he describes as “the social system whose advent coincided (almost certainly not coincidentally) with what Princeton economist Angus Deaton has called ‘the great escape’” from low income and early death (xii).

Watson worries that “if we respond to growing inequality by increasingly fighting capitalism, our false enemy, rather than poverty, our true enemy, we may end up with more of both inequality and poverty and risk at least partly undoing the good accrued during these past, truly remarkable two and a half centuries” (xiii).

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