Hardly an hour goes by without some politician going on the record to lecture the public about the intolerability of “income inequality.” It’s almost enough to numb our brains. To forestall that effect, let’s examine the term more closely.
If income inequality is evil, what is good? Based on what those politicians are saying, the answer is income equality, which is defined as “the state of being equal or the same.” That means those who condemn income inequality are advocating that everyone’s income be the same. They must mean that because if any person or group were to make more than the others, the result would be the inequality they claim is intolerable!
To whom would income equality apply? In a private company, to every employee from the newly hired janitor to the company president with decades of experience. In the Army, to those in every rank from Private to General. In civil service, to all employees from the lowest grade to the highest grade. Among elected federal officials, from the President to Senators and members of Congress (as well as their staffs).
Imagine how that state of affairs would affect morale. While the least experienced would be happy, the most experienced would be sufficiently outraged to howl, “Why are my credentials, my seniority, and my accomplishments being ignored? Where is the justice in that?” (No doubt the politicians who champion income equality would howl the loudest.)
Of course, the howlers would have a valid point—equality would have been gained, but at the expense of fairness.
Moreover, the moment that equal pay was guaranteed regardless of one’s qualifications or achievements, the least experienced workers would lose all incentive to improve themselves or excel at their jobs, and students would lose the motivation to strive for excellence in preparing for their careers. And the moment those effects occurred, the viability of every public and private agency would be undermined.
I could go on describing unfortunate consequences that would inevitably result from America’s embrace of income equality, but what I have already described exposes the idea as patently absurd.
Some may say I am engaging in semantic sleight of hand that distorts what the politicians mean when they deplore “income inequality.” In fact, it is the politicians who are playing word-games—and the chief one is to fashion an emotional term that soundsreasonable and fair but in reality is exactly the opposite.
A fundamental axiom of thinking is that the way a problem is expressed governs the kind of solutions it invites. Seeing America’s principal economic problem as “income inequality” logically leads officials to search for ways of making income equal. Yet as I have shown, that is a fool’s errand.
So how should the problem be expressed? Here are two helpful ways (among others):
As lack of opportunity: This perspective invites a search for ways to increase people’s opportunities for succeeding. These might include establishing voucher programs that enable students to escape failing elementary and secondary schools, and making higher education more affordable.
As skill deficit: This perspective, which complements the previous one, focuses on the condition that prevents people from taking advantage of opportunities. It invites ideas for increasing the skills of potential workers: for example, creating incentives for companies to develop work-study programs for high school dropouts and apprenticeship programs for high school graduates not bound for college.
Economic problems such as unemployment, poverty, and insufficient income (borderline poverty) are very real and therefore deserve thoughtful analysis and meaningful responses. Politicians’ fixation on the ludicrous mantra of “income inequality” is not only irresponsible—it is also an insult to the many victims of genuine problems. Worse, it hinders the effort to find genuine solutions to those problems.
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