“Calvin’s Dad: “The world isn’t fair Calvin”
“Calvin: I know, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favour?””
– from Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes
Three types of inequality exist: Just inequality, unfair inequality, unjust inequality.
Just Inequality: This exists when people have earned better or worse outcomes.
For example: Person A and Person B have the same job that they perform to the same standard and both earn the same wage. Person A works 20 hours a week and Person B works 40 hours a week. Person B gets paid twice as much money per week than Person B and becomes richer. The inequality between them is arguably justified.
Unfair Inequality: This exists when luck distributes unevenly between people.
For example: Person C wins the lottery and thus has more money than Person A and Person B. There’s nothing unjust in Person C’s luck, he didn’t put a gun to anyone’s head and stop them from buying lottery tickets, yet it seems unfair to many people that Person C has so much more wealth than other people, because it seems unearned.
Luck exists as a law of nature, but still it often offends our human sensibilities which tend towards a sense of fairness and expects some sort of even distribution in the world. The promotion of the idea of equality of opportunity is one way that societies try to counter unfair inequality.
Unjust Inequality: This exists when people are denied what they have earned.
For example: Person D completes a good job for his employer, but the employer refuses to pay him, and the system is set up so that Person D can’t claim what he is owed. Person D has less money than Person’s A,B and C, but this seems unjustified, since Person D has earned a better outcome than he has received.
Most people have no issue with just inequality, though hard-core Communists might still argue that Person A and B should be paid the same. And most people would object strongly to unjust inequality, though hard-core Social Darwinists might argue that Person D deserves to be ripped off if he can’t defend himself. The real debate people have is usually about unfair inequality: how much should it be corrected?
People often align on the side that suits them best: if they feel they have less luck in life, they tend to think unfair inequality should be corrected by human society, and if they feel luckier, they tend to think society has no business getting involved in people’s luck. Interestingly, most tax systems take the reverse approach: Person B gets taxed disproportionately heavier for working harder than Person A. Person C often gets taxed less, if at all (depending on the country) for his luck (with a similar result if Person C had a big stock gain instead of a lottery win).
Of course, life rarely fits so neatly into one of these boxes. Take scenario A from just inequality again: let’s say that Person A actually wants to work 40 hours a week, but he’s a redhead and his boss hates people with red hair and thus only hires him part-time. He’s still getting paid less for working less, but it starts to seem less justified, since part of the reason he’s getting paid less is for reasons beyond his control. Some unfair or unjust luck has been introduced and complicated the issue.
Inheritance is another example of a potential mix of all these types of inequality. It seems just that someone should decide who should receive their property when they die. But it also seems unfair that some people get left so much they haven’t earned, while others receive nothing. And lastly, some of that inheritance may well have been earned unjustly: how much should Bernie Madoff’s children receive? After all, they did turn him in.
How should a society account for all this complexity?
An eternal question with too simple answers that cycle around and around, each new age offering an old answer.