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The kinds of equality

But seriously, there’s nothing wrong with the social choice to have more leisure and fewer material goods. The problem with leisure, however, is that you can’t tax it to pay off accumulated debt or to finance pensions for your senior citizens.

Matthew Yglesias hits on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, though in a very different context.  His is talking about stimulus.  I’ve been thinking about it in terms on inequality.

The problem with the inequality conversation is that it tends to centre around a certain kind of inequality: financial inequality.  We have all kind of wealth gaps in Australia, and financial wealth is only one of them.  We have gaps in leisure time wealth and gaps in friend wealth and gaps in companionship wealth.  Any attempt to make society equal through the redistribution of financial wealth ignores the very real effects of the accumulation and distribution of other kinds of wealth.

Some people make a choice to sacrifice leisure in order to earn more money. This is a choice people should be able to make for themselves as free individuals.  And yes, people who earn more should pay more in tax, to some extent.  But the notion that we should be aiming for “equality” through taxation is daft: it imposes requires one idea of what a human life should look like, and it imposes it on all.  It says that work/life balance is a fundamental good which society should desire.

It is, frankly, incredibly intolerant.

What’s more, it assumes that all individuals will derive happiness from the same things.  This is clearly not the case.  Some individuals derive happiness from the accumulation of financial wealth. For others, enough to pay their bills is sufficient, as they’d rather have the time to pursue other interests.  That is entirely their prerogative.  Those who have more wealth should be required to pay more tax to provide services of public good.  But they shouldn’t be required to pay tax in order to facilitate greater financial equality beyond providing basic services (including a safety net) for all.

If you think it is the role of government to increase equality, does that not require considerations of non-material forms of equality? And how do you justify economic redistribution with the goal of increasing financial equality without considering other forms?

I just can’t see any kind of program designed to increase equality that doesn’t look like a giant social project designed to get people to live a certain way that some have determined is the correct way to live.

Theoretically, and I understand this is entirely impractical, I’m increasingly fond of the idea of a tax based on rate per hour, rather than overall income.  Because I don’t think it’s right that the person who earns $83,200 working 80 hours a week should have a tax burden three times that of someone who earned $41,600 working 40 hours a week.  They may be more financially wealthy, but they’re poorer in many other ways.  And any serious conversation about equality ought to consider this.

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