Income, Sex, and Moral Equivalence
By Bryan Caplan
My dear friend Robin Hanson was recently harshly criticized for highlighting the symmetry between income and sex inequality. Robin:
One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer
to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope
to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for
redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten
violence if their demands are not met.
One of the better responses is that extreme poverty causes death, while extreme celibacy merely causes unhappiness. Robin’s reply:
Many people are also under the impression that we redistribute income
mainly because recipients would die without such redistribution. In rich
nations this can account for only a tiny fraction of redistribution.
Robin’s right, of course, but let me translate and elaborate on his reply. When Robin says, “In rich
nations this can account for only a tiny fraction of redistribution,” he basically means that only a tiny fraction of existing income redistribution is necessary to prevent very poor fellow citizens from dying. How tiny a fraction? Well, if redistribution has zero effects on work effort and other poverty-relevant choices, then just add up the cost of raising everyone below subsistence income to subsistence, then divide that sum by total existing redistribution. And since redistribution has at least some perverse incentive effects (e.g., Social Security leads to lower retirement saving), the necessary fraction is even less than it appears.
If you object, “We shouldn’t just meet people’s bare survival needs. They should have enough to live in dignity,” you have officially entered Robin’s zone of moral equivalence. No one dies of lack of dignity, after all. So what is the moral difference between a lifetime diet of beans and rice versus a lifetime of involuntary celibacy?
Unlike Robin, I should add, I’m a big believer in moral blameworthiness. Whether we’re discussing poverty or involuntary celibacy, I think we should always start by investigating whether the sufferer is culpable for his own woes. And empirically, I think the sufferer usually is highly culpable. Able-bodied adults in the First World can and should work their way out of poverty, even if the best job they can get is not fun. And much the same holds for celibacy: Most incels can and should adjust their behavior and attitude to find love, even if the best partner they can get is not thrilling.
At the same time, though, I freely admit that a sizable minority of people suffer blamelessly. A severe congenital handicap could easily lead to both severe poverty and isolation despite exemplary behavior. Should government do anything about this? I don’t know, but at minimum we shouldn’t add insult to injury by mocking people who fail despite earnest effort. But is there anyone morally benighted enough to so mock them? Sure; just scroll through the aforementioned replies to Robin – or see the indiscriminate contempt many people express for incels.