Inequality is not the same thing as poverty. The moral case for eradicating 'poverty' cannot be presented as a moral case against 'inequality'. Yet the two terms are often used interchangeably. People state their intentions to tackle poverty, when in truth their goal is to eradicate inequality by distributing wealth more equally. There are two errors here. The first is the terminological error of treating poverty and inequality as synonymous. The second more serious error is attaching redistributive goals to poverty alleviation measures simply to take advantage of the fact that everyone would want to help the poor. Disguising wealth redistribution as poverty alleviation is nothing more than a disingenuous sleight of hand by those who, being ideologically opposed to inequality, wish to create the impression that they are tackling poverty. Helping the poor transcends ideological boundaries, especially helping children who have no access to food, education, health care, or basic comforts in life like a bed to sleep on. But when it comes to merely feeling angry that some people are richer than others, that's a whole different issue. Stating that 'it's to help the poor' is then a useful way of avoiding difficult discussions about inequality.
Capitalism tends to yield unequal fortunes, but economic debates about capitalism are quite complex. To simply things, and thus garner support for the push against inequality, it is often easier to frame anti-capitalism as a stand for the poor, when in truth concerns about inequality often have nothing to do with poverty. If the CEO of your company earns 350 times your salary, does this mean that you are poor? Let's face it, compared to Bill Gates we are all very 'poor' but this comparison tells us nothing about what we are able to achieve in our lives.
There are three important differences between poverty and inequality. The first difference is that you can fix poverty but you can never fix inequality. There will always be someone out there with a bigger house, a fancier car and a higher income than other people.
The second difference is that you can lift yourself out of poverty by your own efforts, whereas you can't fix global inequality by yourself - you need the government to help you out through measures designed to make everyone more equal.
And the third difference is that everyone agrees that poverty is a social problem, but not everyone agrees that inequality is a social problem.
The meaning of poverty
What does it mean to be poor? This is a good question to begin with, because everyone agrees that something should be done to help the poor even though they might not agree on who is 'poor' or what exactly should be done to help them. Indeed, it is precisely because of the consensus on addressing poverty that people who are worried about inequality try to create the impression that they're only concerned about poverty. So development artists like Oxfam will present themselves as people who care about poverty, in order to raise funds for their cause, but before you can say Executive Perks they'll have showered you with statistics showing you that CEOs earn 386 times the average wage. This has nothing to do with poverty, of course. It has only to do with feeling cross that some people earn much more than others.
But what does it really mean to be poor? Is poverty absolute - you are poor because you earn less than a specified dollar amount? Or is poverty relative, so that being poor depends on how many folks out there are richer than you are?
Following that approach, by viewing poverty as a relative rather than absolute concept, and thus identifying poverty by reference to income and wealth distribution, poverty becomes exactly the same thing as income inequality. In other words, it is not poverty in itself that is the problem, but the fact that some people are poor relative to others and that wealth is distributed unevenly.
The relativity of poverty
In one sense it must be true that poverty is always a relative concept. It would be meaningless to describe myself as 'richer' than King Henry VIII because I have a car and he never had one, as he had the misfortune to be born before they were invented. Not even a king can beat the odds of being born before his time.
By an absolute measure I'm richer by far than everyone who lived in the centuries before I was born, which may be a comforting thought in an existential sense but this is not what most people understand by the notions of wealth and poverty. Common sense dictates that when we describe people as 'poor' we are comparing them to other people in the same time and place in which they live, and in that sense the whole notion of poverty must of course be relative to the context:
Someone too 'poor' to own a linen shirt when everyone around him owns one would not be 'poor' in ancient Greece, sure. He'd be in good company and wouldn't know what he was missing. You often hear people who grew up poor saying that they didn't know they were poor because everyone around them was in the same situation. All the children ran around without shoes and ate bread and dripping for supper, and none of them had a self-perception of being 'poor'. They only realize they must have been poor looking back on it now and appreciating that other children grew up in stately homes with servants and valets or whatever.
Because poverty is a relative concept, today people plead poverty because they don't have smart phones that you need to buy bus tickets in many cities, smart televisions that you need to keep up with the news, and smart cars that you need to get from your home to your place of work especially if you live in places where public transport links are inadequate. The lack of fancy technology does not signify poverty in an absolute sense, but these people feel poor, and in a real sense are poor, because they don't have things that everyone around them has and which have come to be regarded as an essential part of everyday life and just making sure that life runs smoothly.
The question of fairness
Is relative poverty unfair?
If the so-called fight against poverty were simply about making sure that everyone has the basic 'necessities' even if that is defined in a relative sense, it would not be so controversial: it is easy to imagine a society that agrees that everybody should own a smart phone, and then allocates tax dollars to make sure that everybody has a smart phone. The controversy only arises when the so-called fight against poverty becomes an open-ended fight to make sure that everybody has the same amount of stuff and that nobody is richer than other people: in other words, when it becomes a fight against inequality.
If you don't care about inequality, does that mean you don't care about the poor?
When people are accused of not being bothered about 'the poor', that is not usually an accusation that they have failed to be concerned about those lacking food to eat or a place live or even a television to entertain themselves with or a smart phone to connect with their friends; it is usually an accusation that they don't seem to care whether everybody in society has the same amount of stuff.
Let's face it, there will never come a time when everybody is a billionaire, so inequality will always be with us. Is that a bad thing? Does inequality breed unhappiness?
If your house is very modest, with a bed for you to rest your head and a hob for you to cook your dinner and a shelf for you to store your books, are you allowed to be content with that? Or are you expected to work yourself up into a righteous lather because out there some people have ginormous mansions and servants and expensive cars and yachts, so it's appropriate to become very angry because it's all so unfair?
In that case, what is to be done with those who have the temerity to be content with their lot and who don't give a flying fig about who's richer out there - if they refuse to get angry because they haven't bothered to cry 'it's not fair!' since the age of approximately 5: should they perhaps be locked up until they become enlightened enough to join the revolution?
Everyone is free to care or not care about all wealth distribution patterns in society. Those who don't care, are content to live and let live, and accept that there are other people who would like the world to be equal. But those who do care, and who would like to achieve equality, are not content to live and let live. They are compelled to wage war against those who don't care.
The need for coercion and force
Rather than quietly give to charity or pay extra voluntary taxes to the government because of how much they really care, social justice warriors would like everybody to join the cause of ensuring that society becomes ever more equal. Everybody must join them, no exceptions. Two reasons. First, it feels embarrassing to worry about inequality all by oneself, so it becomes necessary to force others to be very worried about it too. The embarrassment comes from the suspicion that you might be a total fool, giving up your money to charity when other people are hoarding theirs, so you'll feel more comfortable if you know that everyone is forced to do it. Second, if you can make gains in wealth redistribution by volunteering your personal wealth, then it logically follows that you can make even greater gains by forcing others to redistribute their wealth too.
The moral justification for being concerned with poverty does not extend to inequality. Poverty focuses on how people live, while inequality focuses on comparisons between different groups of people. Harry Frankfurt captures perfectly the ridiculousness of comparison as a basis for ascertaining wellbeing:
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