Leftism: The Search for a Superior Moral Justification for Envy

In online discussions of inequality, one often sees leftists argue that increasing inequality is bad even if nearly everyone is getting better off in an absolute sense, because relative position in and of itself affects happiness. Since people often feel less happy, more stressed, etc. when they know that others are doing far better than they, the argument goes, redistributive taxation can increase the sum of happiness in society.

Will Wilkinson hauls out the big philosophy stick and gives this line the sound thrashing it deserves. If you're interested in these sorts of debates, you should really go read it.

Share this

Mauvaise foi abounds. The

Mauvaise foi abounds. The ghost of Sartre tells me that he is very disappointed in you all.

As Patri rightly remarks, fragmentation leads to ever more scales of social comparison. Layard routinely says that there is a fixed amount of status, but that's nonsense. As Layard himself recognizes, there is no such thing as the income distribution. People compare themselves to what they take to be the relevant class of people, and the primary class for some people may be defined by something entirely different than money. Take, for instance, the documentary Word Power about tournament Scrabble players. There's a clear competition for status, but income just has nothing to do with it.

The point being, boys, is that you can always opt into a community or subculture where money isn't the primary status indicator, dominate in that status competition, and find a hot woman therein.

Given at least one reason to

Given at least one reason to care about relative position, there's another: passing it on.

The point being, boys, is

The point being, boys, is that you can always opt into a community or subculture where money isn’t the primary status indicator, dominate in that status competition, and find a hot woman therein.

But relative position still matters. Maybe you don't have to be at the top of the income scale, but you do have to be at the top of some scale. Even accounting for men's varying preferences, there just aren't enough highly desirable women to go around.

Note that I'm not arguing for income redistribution. Shuffling money around isn't going to increase the supply of highly desirable women, and severing the link between productivity and landing a hot woman might have devastating economic consequences. I'm just saying that there's at least one perfectly rational reason to care about your relative position on some scale.

I’m just saying that

I’m just saying that there’s at least one perfectly rational reason to care about your relative position on some scale.

Really, is there any other reason?

Nonsense. Hot women are

Nonsense. Hot women are scarce.

Of course. But I have, um, friends who have managed to consistently land hot women without a winning income. HOW COULD THIS BE!?

The point being, boys, is

The point being, boys, is that you can always opt into a community or subculture where money isn’t the primary status indicator, dominate in that status competition, and find a hot woman therein.

Nonsense. Hot women are scarce.

I’ll stop caring about my

I’ll stop caring about my relative position as soon as women stop caring about my relative position.

Or maybe you'll stop caring about relative position when you stop caring about women who care about your relative position.

You only have yourself to blame!

As is their hard-wiring to

As is their hard-wiring to care about relative position.

Or maybe you’ll stop

Or maybe you’ll stop caring about relative position when you stop caring about women who care about your relative position.

But those are the hot women. And my programming to care about them is hardwired.

One factor that does improve

One factor that does improve the "relative position" issue is the fragmenting of society into many different subcultures, allowing for many different ranking scales, and lots of people to be at the top of lots of different social scales.

I wonder how hard it is for

I wonder how hard it is for someone to care less about his relative position.

I'll stop caring about my relative position as soon as women stop caring about my relative position.

I wonder how hard it is for

I wonder how hard it is for someone to care less about his relative position. Or to care less about the issue of inequality.

It seems to me to be a basic aspect of many people's personalities.

I agree that it would be a major improvement in the world if people would care less about it, but I don't know the answer to the question of how much that's under their control, or if it is, how hard it is to change something like that.