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What Steven Pinker gets wrong about economic inequality — and the Enlightenment

- March 11, 2018

Steven Pinker’s new best-selling book “Enlightenment Now” has excited the reading public. Bill Gates has called it “my new favorite book of all time.” As he has in previous work, Pinker, like the most optimistic Enlightenment thinkers, argues that modern life has gotten much better despite ever-present complaints. Technology has reduced the need for physical labor. Mortality rates are down. IQ scores are on the rise. Wars are less frequent and less deadly.

In this new book Pinker adds one more thing to his list of wrongheaded complaints about contemporary society: economic inequality. But there is an important problem with Pinker’s dismissal of concerns about inequality. In short, Pinker champions the Enlightenment but does not engage the important concerns about inequality raised by Enlightenment thinkers.

Pinker downplays economic inequality

Pinker argues that concern about economic inequality — among economists, sociologists, epidemiologists, and others — is misguided and counterproductive. Pinker cites an old Soviet fable, in which one peasant establishes equality with another by killing the other’s goat, to argue that promoting equality might harm those at the top rather than helping those at the bottom. Drawing on the arguments of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt and many others, Pinker says the problem is poverty, not inequality. He endorses a “sufficientarian” view: We should provide enough for the poor that they do not suffer. But neither the wealth of those at the top, nor the gap between the wealthy and poor, is a moral concern.

(Credit: Viking)

But inequality was a moral concern to Enlightenment thinkers

As the title of “Enlightenment Now” suggests, Pinker believes that Enlightenment thinkers had essential insights that escape today’s malcontents. To him, the Enlightenment’s championing of reason, science, humanism, and moral progress is a model for our own times.

But Enlightenment thinkers were also deeply concerned about inequality. The so-called godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, emphasized the dangers of extreme wealth and inequality: “A man of great fortune, a nobleman, is much farther removed from the condition of his servant than a farmer. … The disproportion betwixt them, the condition of the nobleman and his servant, is so great that he will hardly look at him as being of the same kind; he thinks he has little title even to the ordinary enjoyments of life, and feels but little for his misfortunes.”

To Smith, economic inequality made it harder to feel sympathy with those of a different social class. As Smith wrote in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”: “Men … feel so little for each other, with whom they have no particular connection, in comparison of what they feel for themselves.”

Pinker is dismissive of those who condemn inequality on the basis of “the theory of social comparison” — the notion that we define ourselves in comparison to others. Yet once again, Enlightenment thinkers argued that this idea was not so easily dismissed. A great contribution of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Pinker cites occasionally but does not discuss in depth, was to describe the effects of social comparison.  In his “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality,” he observed, “Amour-propre [self-love] is … a relative feeling, factitious and born in society, which inclines each individual to be preoccupied with himself more than with anyone else, which inspires in men all the evils they do to each other.”

Rousseau argues that social comparison can lead people to seek great wealth, often at the expense of one’s peers. Indeed, the suffering of one’s peers becomes a form of entertainment. Rousseau writes, “The rich … had hardly learned about the pleasure of dominating than they soon disdained all others, and, making use of their old slaves to subject new ones, dreamed only of subjugating and enslaving their neighbors, like those ravenous wolves which, having once tasted human flesh, reject all other food and no longer want to devour anything but men.” The ability to manipulate the poor becomes a measure of the rich person’s power and status.

Of course, these insights about inequality well preceded the Enlightenment. In the Bible, the book of Amos tells a similar tale of how the rich earn God’s wrath by plundering the poor for sport. Plato cautioned, “it is impossible that those who become very rich become also good.” And more recently, the social psychologist Dacher Keltner has demonstrated that the wealthier people are, the more difficult it is for them to uphold basic norms of decency and reciprocity. In short, it is premature to conclude, as does Pinker, that inequality poses no serious moral and social problems.

Pinker’s argument breaks with his previous views on inequality

What is particularly striking is how much Pinker has departed from his earlier thoughts on inequality. Sixteen years ago, in his book “Blank Slate,” he acknowledged that false conceptions about human nature in unequal societies make it “easy [for the rich] to blame the victim and tolerate inequality.” He allows that if “social status is relative,” then “extreme inequality can make people on the lower rungs of society feel defeated.” He sees real consequences: “It is not just a matter of hurt feelings: people with lower status are less healthy and die younger, and communities with greater inequality have poor health and shorter life expectancies.”

But in “Enlightenment Now, Pinker celebrates inequality as “a harbinger of opportunity.” Observing these differences in his work some 16 years apart, it seems that he has not become the champion of Enlightenment ideas in this respect, but rather has forgotten them without even noticing.

David Lay Williams is a professor of political science at DePaul University and author of “Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment and “Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction,” as well as co-editor of “Rousseau: Fundamental Political Writings.” He is writing a book entitled “ ‘The Greatest of All Plagues’: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought,” under contract with Princeton University Press.