The Mechanics Of Inequality
4 Jun 2024

We all want a fair world.

Left or right, no one believes themselves to be a villain, and everyone’s motives are pristine. Motivation is not the issue however – because well-intentioned people may and in fact do look at the world and arrive at very different conclusions, diagnoses and treatments.

Back to the start: we all want a fair world. And there is something in unfairness that doesn’t sit well with us. Nature doesn’t share human sensitivities. For all the nature-worship going on, Mother Nature herself is brutally Darwinian. Not only doesn’t she care who lives and who dies, but she shows no sorrow for any victims of circumstance. It’s sweet to believe that human beings are the most cruel and evil species on the planet – but it doesn’t last long once you’ve seen a troop of chimps tear a small monkey limb from limb, while alive, for the sheer pleasure of it. We may be no less evil, but we’re certainly not more.

Nature, or the universe, is cold and doesn’t care. Humanity – imperfect, often foolish, bumbling, stumbling, arrogant, short-sighted, prone to error – comes along and imposes on the natural world some grand design of ideal fairness. As we should.

As flawed as our efforts might be, and as unlikely to be successful as they are – our elusive ideals sets a direction which drag our species higher-up at least the cosiness level of nature’s frigid hierarchy. We may imperfectly strive for justice, decency, fairness and goodness – but there exists no model outside of our own efforts to even presuppose that these fine ideals exist at all.

On what basis should things be fair, if not human empathy? Divine laws seem to be the basis of morality only in romanticized reflection – in the immediacy of implementation the whims of gods are no more enlightened than the chaos of natural disasters.

I think about these things in a world I perceive, along with many, as unfair. Why do some have more than others? Why do some do better than others? Why do some struggle less? Given our doomed impulse to fairness, why is humanity’s fate so unfair?

There are diagnoses, prognoses, and prescriptions aplenty. Opinions are thrown around, studies are thrown around, stats are thrown around, words are thrown around, numbers are thrown around – as are grand visions of how to fix things. But facts (numbers, stats, studies, words, ideas) are no smarter than those who wield them – and no one has ever gone broke underestimating the stupidity of large crowds convinced they are right.

Along comes a brave soul. Imminently qualified, credentialed up the wazoo. Nothing to prove anymore, to anyone – safely accepted by everyone who matters as one of the most phenomenal minds of our time. A brilliant and astute Economist, who looks at the numbers and follow wherever they may lead, rather than force them to dance to his foregone conclusions.

And he does what to many is blasphemy: Rather than pretend that reality is something that can be compromised as if disagreement is mere opinion, but rather that everything that can be tried has been tried, that policies have consequences, and that we have a well-established track record of what consequences follow which policies. If you’ve never read Thomas Sowell yet, or studied economics, you are in for a treat. If you know his work, much will be familiar, but he strikes right at the choices of trade-offs at the heart of what might be the issue of our time.

The main thesis could not be simpler. Disparate outcomes are not evidence of oppression or discrimination.

Two brothers grow up in a family. One becomes a doctor, is happily married and donates to charity. The other is serving his second prison sentence. And not just in easy value judgement outcomes of good or bad. One sister gets an A+ for math and wants to become an engineer. The other barely scrapes by in class – but man oh man – can she dance. Given that the outcomes are so wildly different within a single family unit – that has in common all material circumstance and cultural presuppositions – what makes us believe that there can be an equality of outcomes across very different groups in very different conditions and very different cultures?

Is the fact that one group does worse in one specific metric, or a set of them, a sign that they are genetically predisposed to be inferior? We all reject this hypothesis. Sowell rejects this hypothesis too. Is it a sign that they are being persecuted, discriminated against? This seems to be accepted as obvious… but Sowell once again rejects this. And his arguments are not only sensible, they are provable.

One example. Population Group A earns on average $150,000 per year. Population Group B earns only $30,000. On its surface a grotesque injustice. But when you learn that the median age of Population Group A is 51, while the median age of Population Group B is 22 – your argument – and all the passion you feel in propagating and defending it – is revealed to be, well, comically silly.

Or take comparisons between countries. Country Alphania is rich, powerful and progressive. Country Betania is war-torn, crime infested, and starving. Is it because of history? Is it because of the intrinsic characteristics of the population, climates, resources, political traditions? What Alphania did to Betania? Answers fly thick and fast… opinions are sprouted, each with statistical support, with almost reckless abandon.

But mere geography will play a significant role. Areas located near the sea and in temperate zones have 8% of the world’s land area, 23% of the population, and 53% of the GDP. That’s an unfair distribution – but an automatic one as far as things go, perhaps even an inevitable one – and it has absolutely nothing to do with politics, history, or even culture, except so far as culture is shaped by the near perfect environment.

Drastic disparities are not only common, but to be expected – and surprising and dramatic disparities within our culture might exist on the basis of factors we rarely even consider.

Differences do matter, but differences might not be rooted in malice or even design. Children of parents with professional occupations hear 2,100 words per hour. Children with working-class parents hear 1,200 words per hour. And children on welfare, 600 words per hour. Of those words, the higher the word count, the higher the proportion of encouraging words. The lower the word count, the higher the proportion of discouraging words. “The idea that the world would be a level playing field if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts.”

Sowell distinguishes between different kinds of discrimination. Type 1A is based on information already obtained (I test for a skill and select the best for the job, discriminating against everyone who couldn’t perform the function). Type 1B is based on costlier-to-obtain information, so the discriminator relies on knowledge of group differences. (I sell tickets to a rave, I advertise in a Youth Chat Group, not a publication for retirees). In the world’s efforts to find fairness, both of these reasonable forms of discrimination are at risk of being tossed out, like very important babies in relatively clean bathwater.

Type II is the bad kind, the arbitrary kind of discrimination. Petty. I don’t like RACE/SEX kind of aversion, which pretty much everyone agrees is immoral, and certainly every institution in the free world does not practice or advocate for.

In theory, Sowell’s ask is obvious, easy, universal and immediate. But when met with the inflexibility of foregone conclusions, suddenly his suggestion seems heretical, cruel, highly one-sided and impossible to implement.

The suggestion is simply this: Let out policies be driven by data and not ideology.

PS – if you are new to Economics, Thomas Sowell’s book Basic Economics is one of the best, if not the best, introductory book to the subject. His works should be required reading for policymakers, both those whose political impulses would be agreeable toward his conclusions, and those whose impulses won’t.