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Campus Media Response: In Celebration of Inequality

In another hard-hitting piece in MIT’s The Tech, Keith Yost responds to the charge, much discussed of late in connection with the Wisconsin union protests, that our society faces a crisis of “inequality”:

Let’s begin with the obvious: the inequality of well-being has drastically fallen since 1967. Bill Gates may have a million times the income of the average man, but he cannot eat a million meals. Despite the enlarged access to medical care that his income enables, his life expectancy is not much higher than his fellow American. . . . Technology and economic growth have brought most significant technologies within buying reach of the masses; the real mean income of the bottom quintile may have only increased by 28.6 percent to the top quintile’s 70.7 over the past 42 years, but the utility that the bottom quintile got from each marginal dollar was much higher. . . .
Between Wal-Mart and globalization of production, low-end consumer goods have become cheaper at a much faster rate than high-end consumer goods. Adjusted for purchasing power, the growth disparity in consumption between the classes becomes miniscule.

This is all true, but Yost makes his argument by way of apologizing for economic inequality when he should be celebrating it. He emphasizes that Gates cannot actually consume much of what he earns. What he neglects to mention is that Gates earns so much more than the rest of us because he has produced so much more, by fostering innovation in technology and in business.

We can only benefit from such surplus production. Consider a separate point made by Yost, that the increasing degree of economic inequality we see today may be amplified by the networking effects of the internet age. As Yost puts it, “Is J.K. Rowling [any] better of an author than Charles Dickens, or is she merely the recipient of a windfall that the information economy has provided?”

This is an especially noteworthy point, because more than most people, it was Bill Gates who made it possible for more and more people to benefit from the economizing influence of information technology. Arguably, without Bill Gates, there may have been no J.K. Rowling. You may not have found your current school or job or boyfriend or wife without the availability of cheap, effective personal computers.

And this reminds us of a passage from the hero’s speech in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong.

The old Marxist myth, that in a capitalist system workers bear the burden of the rich who live off the fruit of their labor, is the opposite of the truth. We should not apologize for economic inequality, but celebrate it and embrace it. If we are grateful for the benefits of the modern age, we should acknowledge our debt of gratitude to men like Gates, and the sizable income that is their due.

Creative Commons-licensed picture from Wikimedia Commons

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.