Inequality requires narrative stabilizers. When you have too little and someone else has more than they can possibly use, simple logic dictates that you should take what they have.
The forbearance exercised by the many when it comes to the wealth of the few isn't down to guards or laws - rather, the laws and the guards are effective because of the *story*, the story of why this is fair, even inevitable.
They get a larger slice of the pie than the people who lay the tracks, but they also made the pie bigger - their wealth represents three goods:
I. The incentive to make us all better off,
II. a reward for doing so, and
III. proof they earned it.
Implicit in this theory is the idea that markets are elevating people based on their suitability to a time and circumstance, for the benefit of us all.
You didn't strike it rich because you just weren't the right person to lead in your time and place.
But because the right person *did* strike it rich, your life - and the lives of the people you love - were all improved. Your kids got a better start, and they might turn out to be the right person in the right place when they grow up.
That's the true significance of rags-to-riches: not that anyone can strike it rich, but that the people who did strike it rich deserved it, and anything you do to stop them will make YOU worse off, because they know how to maximize all our wellbeing in this moment.
But that's not actually how it works. As Thomas Piketty showed in CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY, the biggest predictor of whether you'll get rich is whether you're rich already:
Markets reward capital at a higher rate than they reward growth. Bill Gates founded the most successful company in world history, but made less money from it than L'Oreal heiress (and useless parasite) Liliane Bettencourt made over the same period.
But then Gates retired and became an investor - someone who allocated capital to people who did things, rather than doing things himself. And almost immediately, his fortune grew larger than either Bettencourt's or Gates-as-founder's had.
But being born rich doesn't make you a good capital allocator, it makes you a useless parasite. Some might escape parasitehood, but they don't have to - you can be Donald Trump, or Don Jr, and still amass millions.
When our capital allocations are dominated by plutes, we end up in a society where evidence-based policy can only be made if it doesn't gore a plute's ox, and the plutes own all the oxen. So we end up with lethal healthcare, agriculture, climate and other policies.
We see the evidence of this daily, in headlines like "Inadequate healthcare has killed more Americans than Covid":
"The US trailed the rest of the advanced world in life expectancy since the 1980s... it's 3.4 years shorter than other G7 countries."
Death and privation chip away at the narrative of beneficial inequality, a system that elevates those who do the best for us all. I think we're at an inflection point now, as the storylines that started with Occupy are proven out by the pandemic and leap to the mainstream.
How else to explain Time headlines like "The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That's Made the U.S. Less Secure"?
The article reports on a Rand Corporation paper that estimates the wealth of the bottom 90% if American wealth distribution had held steady at the postwar levels, the most equal America had been since manumission.
It traces the real consequences of this inequality - the health and lifespan difference, the political instability, the mounting budget for guard labor to restabilize a system made untenable by the near-universal breakdown in a belief in its fairness.
Systems are stabilized by law and the force of the state, but these are rounding errors compared to the stability imparted by narrative, the consensus that things are fair. Once you lose that, no amount of guard labor can keep it all from toppling over.
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