Over at Cato Unbound, Elizabeth Anderson responds to Will Wilkinson’s really solid argument about economic inequality. Will argues that inequality is not injustice in and of itself, but that it can indeed be a symptom of actual injustice. If inequality comes about due to variation in skill, effort, performance, and chance, then there is no injustice. If inequality comes about because some elite class is illegitimately withholding resources from the poor, then it does no good to focus on the inequality. The injustice is the injustice itself.
Elizabeth Anderson makes an absurd argument, one that I had long suspected leftists who fixate on inequality might endorse:
Economic inequality can also lead to stigmatization. Adam Smith famously observed that, as the general level of consumption increases, so does the level of consumption needed by each individual to be able to appear in public without shame:
A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.
The consumption of the better-off thereby raises the cost of living for the worse off. The demands of respectable appearance can be crushing in regions where spiteful competition inflames a culture of conspicuous consumption. In the 2008 documentary Kids + Money, Lauren Greenfield depicts the competitive consumption among teenagers of all classes in Los Angeles, sometimes to the financial ruin of parents who are less well-off. One single mother, desperate to see her daughter wear socially accepted clothes, couldn’t pay her utility bills because she spent her income on a pricey t-shirt for her daughter.
Anderson is justifying redistribution by the state because people are sometimes stigmatized for not keeping up with fashion? Am I cold-hearted because I have absolutely no sympathy for a parent who can’t deny an expensive, unnecessary shirt to their own child and teach them how to socialize? Children are bullied for all sorts of reasons far more intangible and trivial than for the particular clothes that they wear.
This argument is absurd on so many levels. Will redistribution mean that this kind of stigmatization would simply disappear? Does Anderson really believe that the key driver of this systematic error she describes is inequality and not ten other social problems with the community, or the parents themselves? Does Anderson believe this problem is widespread enough to justify redistribution, and all its costs?
Could the state possibly have the knowledge to analyze and act on how people will be stigmatized socially? Maybe Anderson’s isn’t connecting the dots. If the state did have the knowledge and the authority to “fix” a problem like this, it would be a totalitarian society. That’s no exaggeration.