Living Like Kings and Not Loving It (The Inequality List, Part 2)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Earlier this month, in "A Taxonomy of Excuses for Poverty and Inequality," I offered a draft version of the series of arguments that conservatives have offered over the years in response to liberals' calls for redistributive economic policies.  The list is set up as a series of fallback arguments -- "A, but if not A, then B, and if not B, then C," and so on.  I have already received some helpful suggestions to add to the list, and I invite further thoughts from readers.

Although I made it clear in that post that I am unpersuaded by the arguments that I was summarizing, that post was more of a listing exercise than anything else.  Having taken that initial step, I now plan to write a long series of posts in which I address the various list items, exploring the theory and evidence in some detail regarding each conservative claim.  This series of posts will be open-ended and of no planned length, and I suspect that I will add to the series frequently over the next year or longer, interspersed with posts on other topics as they arise.  With the initial "taxonomy" post being Part 1, this post is accordingly Part 2 of The Inequality List.  (I have also edited the title of the original post to reflect this new plan.)

Some readers might find it hard to believe, but the first claim on the list is that there is no problem in the first place, that is, that "poverty does not exist."  Surely, one might imagine that Professor Buchanan is building a straw man.  No one seriously claims that there is no problem, or that there is no poverty, do they?!  But no, many conservatives really do make this argument, in varying forms.  Most recently, Fox News's many interchangeable talking heads have spent several years trying to prove that poor Americans are not really poor.  Because, you know, they have refrigerators!  And cellphones!!  And they are not all starving to death.  How can you call them poor?

This argument, in a less embarrassing form, essentially boils down to a statement of relativism and, for lack of a better term, slippery-slopism.  The idea is that one cannot really call someone poor, if it is possible to identify something that they have that is valuable.  If they did not have that thing, then they would be poorer, which means that they are not currently poor.  It is tempting to say that the only thing that would qualify as poverty in this framing is absolute privation, but as I will demonstrate below, even that would not be enough.

First, however, it is important to note how this argument works.  Frequently, it becomes part of a  dance that allows a person to claim to care about human misery, while exculpating us from having to do anything for anyone else.  The dance is a simple two-step: (1) Americans must solve our problems at home first, but (2) if we just look at how much better the poor have it in America than, say, in the poorest parts of Africa, we can see that there is no problem to solve here.  Our poor people are not poor, but the really poor people are not our problem.  It is a tidy argument, in its depraved way.

Although less explicit than in its Fox form, the argument in step (2) still relies entirely on the idea that a problem can be defined out of existence by trying to say that "poor" must mean something absolute, and then showing that there are no absolutes.  And honestly, once one has decided that it means something to say, "It could be worse," then there is no stopping.  People living on $2 a day in Somalia, for example, could be living on $1 a day, so how can we call them poor?  Besides, most of them are living better lives because various diseases have been wiped out, so that even the poorest people are much less likely to die prematurely of, say, the plague than they might have at another time.

Which brings me to the title of this post.  The most interesting relativist move here is in comparing the living standards of people alive today to people in earlier eras.  This argument comes in many forms, but the first time I heard it (about thirty years ago), the claim was that poor people today are not merely better off than poor people were a hundred years ago, but they are actually living more comfortable lives than kings lived in Europe for centuries.  How can we call poor people poor, when they have access to things that Louis XIV could not have dreamed about?

Any initial appeal of that logic dissipates rather quickly, precisely because the relativist move unravels the entire argument.  If the relevant comparison is what people would have enjoyed in the Seventeenth Century, why stop there?  Maybe a person is not poor unless they are worse off than someone who lived before the Bronze Age.  But why stop there?  There might have been people at the dawn of time whose children were carried off by saber-toothed tigers.  No one today, no matter how poor, has to worry about that.  Problem solved!  (Or, more accurately, no problem!)

As in so many things, the absurdity of this style of reasoning has been captured by the Monty Python troupe.  In one sequence in "The Life of Brian," the lead character is thrown into a dungeon, only to discover a gray-bearded, grizzled man who has obviously been in the dungeon for years.  When the guard spits in Brian's face, the old hand becomes jealous and says mockingly, "Oh, what I wouldn't give to be spat at in the face!"  He later adds, "I've been here five years! They only hung me the right way up yesterday!"  Brian, he suggests, will "probably get away with crucifixion."

The relativism point, therefore, ends up saying that, no matter how bad someone has it, it could always be worse.  Even if one is going to die, one could die sooner or in a more gruesome fashion.  Always look on the bright side of life!  As a reason to do nothing about people's situations, however, this makes no sense.  It is true that the definition of poverty will actually be a matter of relative inequality and relative privation, but so what?  It certainly should not be acceptable to say that, although a person was born today, when it is quite possible to live much more comfortably than in previous times, "poverty" can only be defined by the standards of rich people in other eras.  Yes, kings relieved themselves in chamber pots, and many poor people today can use flush toilets.  That is a statement of technological progress, not an excuse to allow people to live lives of misery by today's standards.

The problem with this line of reasoning is not merely the amoral relativism, however.  The "living like kings" distraction also proves far too much.  That is, if the argument is that we should do nothing, so long as the government arranges society in a way that allows everyone to enjoy more creature comforts than Genghis Khan experienced, then it must be acceptable for the government to reorganize society in any way that it likes, too, so long as it meets that low bar.

So, if the government were actually to make the current rich and the current poor trade places ("punishing success" in a quite literal way), the formerly rich could have no complaint, because they too would be living better than medieval kings and princes.  Especially given that the government could do such a thing without even using tax or spending policies, because it can simply change the various laws that enable the economy to function to the differential benefit of people in various situations, then there could be no objection to even the most aggressive redistributive plans.  We would not be talking merely about the standard modern liberal redistributionists' preference to compress after-tax income and wealth, without reordering where people sit in society, but actually doing anything that comes into the government's collective mind to move people up and down in the pecking order.

In short, the argument that "there is no poverty," because poverty is ultimately relative, is intended to say that people who worry about supposedly poor people should stop trying to get the government to reorganize its rules to improve the lot of the least well-off, because things could be worse.  There are, however, plenty of ways in which the government could set up the rules, and in which the resulting group of have-nots could be told that it could be worse.  "Sure, you were rich last year, and now you feel poor.  But hey, you're not really poor, because William the Conqueror had it worse than you in a lot of ways.  Suck it up!"

To be very clear, I am not at all arguing in favor of changing the laws to make the rich poor and the poor rich.  I do remain committed to the idea of raising up the least among us, and to limiting the extreme advantages conferred by wealth.  But if the argument is that everything is relative, then everything really must be relative, and anything that we do short of putting people back into "continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," must be acceptable.  Except that it is always possible for life to be ever more solitary, poorer, nastier, more brutish, and shorter.  Somehow, I cannot imagine that people would be counting their blessings that things could always be worse.  In any event, that is hardly a basis for public policy.