Why income inequality is not the injustice we perceive it to be

"The starting point for understanding inequality in the context of human progress is to recognize that income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being."

Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker
Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker

The starting point for understanding inequality in the context of human progress is to recognize that income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being. It is not like health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace, and the other areas of progress I examine in these chapters. The reason is captured in an old joke from the Soviet Union. Igor and Boris are dirt-poor peasants, barely scratching enough crops from their small plots of land to feed their families. The only difference between them is that Boris owns a scrawny goat. One day a fairy appears to Igor and grants him a wish. Igor says, “I wish that Boris’s goat should die.”

The point of the joke, of course, is that the two peasants have become more equal but that neither is better off, aside from Igor’s indulging his spiteful envy. The point is made with greater nuance by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 2015 book On Inequality. Frankfurt argues that inequality itself is not morally objectionable; what is objectionable is poverty. If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant. Frankfurt writes, “From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” Indeed, a narrow focus on economic inequality can be destructive if it distracts us into killing Boris’s goat instead of figuring out how Igor can get one.

The confusion of inequality with poverty comes straight out of the lump fallacy—the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource, like an antelope carcass, which has to be divvied up in zero-sum fashion, so that if some people end up with more, others must have less. As we just saw, wealth is not like that: since the Industrial Revolution, it has expanded exponentially. That means that when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer, too. Even experts repeat the lump fallacy, presumably out of rhetorical zeal rather than conceptual confusion. Thomas Piketty, whose 2014 bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a talisman in the uproar over inequality, wrote, “The poorer half of the population are as poor today as they were in the past, with barely 5 percent of total wealth in 2010, just as in 1910.” But total wealth today is vastly greater than it was in 1910, so if the poorer half own the same proportion, they are far richer, not “as poor.”

A more damaging consequence of the lump fallacy is the belief that if some people get richer, they must have stolen more than their share from everyone else. A famous illustration by the philosopher Robert Nozick, updated for the 21st century, shows why this is wrong. Among the world’s billionaires is J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, which have sold more than 400 million copies and have been adapted into a series of films seen by a similar number of people. Suppose that a billion people have handed over $10 each for the pleasure of a Harry Potter paperback or movie ticket, with a tenth of the proceeds going to Rowling. She has become a billionaire, increasing inequality, but she has made people better off, not worse off (which is not to say that every rich person has made people better off). This doesn’t mean that Rowling’s wealth is just deserts for her effort or skill, or a reward for the literacy and happiness she added to the world; no committee ever judged that she deserved to be that rich. Her wealth arose as a by-product of the voluntary decisions of billions of book buyers and moviegoers.

Steven Pinker, author of 'The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language,' poses for a portrait reading a tabloid, the Sun, with the headline, 'Baby Born Talking Describes Heaven,' on March 10, 1994. (Michele McDonald/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)


To be sure, there may be reasons to worry about inequality itself, not just poverty. Perhaps most people are like Igor and their happiness is determined by how they compare with their fellow citizens rather than how well-off they are in absolute terms. When the rich get too rich, everyone else feels poor, so inequality lowers well-being even if everyone gets richer. This is an old idea in social psychology, variously called the theory of social comparison, reference groups, status anxiety, or relative deprivation. But the idea must be kept in perspective. Imagine Seema, an illiterate woman in a poor country who is village-bound, has lost half her children to disease and will die at fifty, as do most of the people she knows. Now imagine Sally, an educated person in a rich country who has visited several cities and national parks, has seen her children grow up, and will live to eighty, but is stuck in the lower middle class. It’s conceivable that Sally, demoralized by the conspicuous wealth she will never attain, is not particularly happy, and she might even be unhappier than Seema, who is grateful for small mercies. Yet it would be mad to suppose that Sally is not better off, and positively depraved to conclude that one may as well not try to improve Seema’s life because it might improve her neighbors’ lives even more and leave her no happier. In any case, the thought experiment is moot, because in real life Sally almost certainly is happier. Contrary to an earlier belief that people are so mindful of their richer compatriots that they keep resetting their internal happiness meter to the baseline no matter how well they are doing, we will see that richer people and people in richer countries are (on average) happier than poorer people and people in poorer countries.

But even if people are happier when they and their countries get richer, might they become more miserable if others around them are still richer than they are—that is, as economic inequality increases? In their well-known book The Spirit Level, the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett claim that countries with greater income inequality also have higher rates of homicide, imprisonment, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, physical and mental illness, social distrust, obesity, and substance abuse. The economic inequality causes the ills, they argue: unequal societies make people feel that they are pitted in a winner-take-all competition for dominance, and the stress makes them sick and self-destructive.

The Spirit Level theory has been called “the left’s new theory of everything,” and it is as problematic as any other theory that leaps from a tangle of correlations to a single-cause explanation. For one thing, it’s not obvious that people are whipped into competitive anxiety by the existence of J. K. Rowling and Sergey Brin as opposed to their own, local rivals for professional, romantic, and social success. Worse, economically egalitarian countries like Sweden and France differ from lopsided countries like Brazil and South Africa in many ways other than their income distribution. The egalitarian countries are, among other things, richer, better educated, better governed, and more culturally homogeneous, so a raw correlation between inequality and happiness (or any other social good) may show only that there are many reasons why it’s better to live in Denmark than in Uganda. Wilkinson and Pickett’s sample was restricted to developed countries, but even within that sample the correlations are evanescent, coming and going with choices about which countries to include. Wealthy but unequal countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, are often socially healthier than poorer but more equal countries, such as those of ex-Communist Eastern Europe.

Most damagingly, the sociologists Jonathan Kelley and Mariah Evans have snipped the causal link joining inequality to happiness in a study of two hundred thousand people in sixty-eight societies over three decades. Kelley and Evans held constant the major factors that are known to affect happiness, including GDP per capita, age, sex, education, marital status, and religious attendance, and found that the theory that inequality causes unhappiness “comes to shipwreck on the rock of the facts.” In developing countries, inequality is not dispiriting but heartening: people in the more unequal societies are happier. The authors suggest that whatever envy, status anxiety, or relative deprivation people may feel in poor, unequal countries is swamped by hope. Inequality is seen as a harbinger of opportunity, a sign that education and other routes to upward mobility might pay off for them and their children. Among developed countries (other than formerly Communist ones), inequality made no difference one way or another. (In formerly Communist countries, the effects were also equivocal: inequality hurt the aging generation that grew up under communism, but helped or made no difference to the younger generations.)

The fickle effects of inequality on well-being bring up another common confusion in these discussions: the conflation of inequality with unfairness. Many studies in psychology have shown that people, including young children, prefer windfalls to be split evenly among participants, even if everyone ends up with less overall. That led some psychologists to posit a syndrome called inequity aversion: an apparent desire to spread the wealth. But in their recent article “Why People Prefer Unequal Societies,” the psychologists Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom took another look at the studies and found that people prefer unequal distributions, both among fellow participants in the lab and among citizens in their country, as long as they sense that the allocation is fair: that the bonuses go to harder workers, more generous helpers, or even the lucky winners of an impartial lottery. “There is no evidence so far,” the authors conclude, “that children or adults possess any general aversion to inequality.” People are content with economic inequality as long as they feel that the country is meritocratic, and they get angry when they feel it isn’t. Narratives about the causes of inequality loom larger in people’s minds than the existence of inequality. That creates an opening for politicians to rouse the rabble by singling out cheaters who take more than their fair share: welfare queens, immigrants, foreign countries, bankers, or the rich, sometimes identified with ethnic minorities.

In addition to effects on individual psychology, inequality has been linked to several kinds of society-wide dysfunction, including economic stagnation, financial instability, intergenerational immobility, and political influence-peddling. These harms must be taken seriously, but here too the leap from correlation to causation has been contested. Either way, I suspect that it’s less effective to aim at the Gini index as a deeply buried root cause of many social ills than to zero in on solutions to each problem: investment in research and infrastructure to escape economic stagnation, regulation of the finance sector to reduce instability, broader access to education and job training to facilitate economic mobility, electoral transparency and finance reform to eliminate illicit influence, and so on. The influence of money on politics is particularly pernicious because it can distort every government policy, but it’s not the same issue as income inequality. After all, in the absence of electoral reform the richest donors can get the ear of politicians whether they earn 2 percent of national income or 8 percent of it.

Economic inequality, then, is not itself a dimension of human well-being, and it should not be confused with unfairness or with poverty. Let’s now turn from the moral significance of inequality to the question of why it has changed over time.


Adapted from ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Steven Pinker.

An artist's depiction of Lola.

Tom Björklund
Surprising Science
  • Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
  • Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
  • The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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