Relative Poverty is all the rage now, and conservatives are very suspicious of it. Meeting basic needs would seem to be our essential responsibility to our fellow-citizens who have serious limitations or have fallen on hard times. How those citizens perceive that, and how they feel about it, would seem to be their own affair. Aid based on need rather than perception also has a simple logic to it, which is always attractive. Pleading relative poverty would seem a neverending method of holding society hostage.
I think that’s about right, but there are at least two interesting spinoffs from that which could change our perspective.
The Impulse to Equalise is Hardwired
There is a reasonable chance that feeling some sting around relative poverty is hardwired into us. Descended from generations of humans who lived in small groups – bands, villages, clans, neighborhoods – a finely-tuned sense of distributional fairness is part of our makeup. As a shared value, it improves group survival. Certainly some might fairly command more goods from the tribal storehouse, but everyone affected could see why: this was a person of particular skill or courage whose actions benefited the group and deserved the reward. Our ability to see the basis for the inequality helps us quiet the more primitive sense that all should receive equally (or I should receive more).
That hardwired impulse toward equity does not have to be a cause of resentment. It is a malleable feeling, which can express itself in many ways. It can spur imitation or alliance. It can create competition, fawning obedience, or envy. That discomfort can cause people to move away or move closer.
The seeing why is not now so available to us. People make money in ways that are mysterious to us, getting paid for goods or services we don’t see the value of or don’t understand. When we understand the basis for the unequal distribution in an individual case, we are much less likely to object. A guy fixes your computer and you’re impressed; he makes good money at it; good for him. This woman listens to your symptoms, takes some odd measurements, orders some tests, and figures out why you feel crummy; she gets paid more than you; bully for her then, because she does something you couldn’t.
But that guy in that new mansion going up, I don’t know what he does, really. Something in consulting. Who knows? There’s all kinds of people like that in town, now, sending their kids to special baseball camps and buying breeds of dog I’ve never seen. What’s with that? That tribe of people, those traders, those seminar speakers, those internet people, those manipulators of stocks or whatever, how does money just flow to them like that? When the methods by which people acquire goods are less understandable, some of our possible responses are blocked. How to imitate or compete with something you can’t understand?
Yes, it is not quite rational. It is an impulse left over from our earlier selves, when mutual social approval was a method of improving village or clan survival. We can see its history back through earliest folktales, this desire to level those who have good fortune for unclear reasons. Yet the impulse doesn’t work so well in a society where much of what is produced is abstract, information-based, or otherwise invisible. It is quite real, though, and people still win elections by appeals to that inchoate unfairness we sense about life, where others receive more than their share (note the word) without obvious dessert.
When you listen to people – not just poor people, but everyone – talk about the money they make versus the money others make, this language of what-I-do-is more-valuable is prominent. “I have a master’s degree and twenty years experience and I still make less than $40,000.” “I have to work a second job, and they go on strike because $32/hr isn’t enough?” “This society doesn’t value (fill in the blank).” Some of this is mere self-centeredness, of course. We are only too aware of the difficulties in our own jobs and our own lives, less so what others face. Those people in the other department don’t seem to be doing so much, or they’ve had less training, or what they do doesn’t look so hard. There is a lot of resentment out there, which is why so many of us secretly rejoice when the mighty are brought low.
Perhaps it was ever thus – envy and resentment may be more our common lot than we like to admit. The few remaining hunter-gatherer bands in the world do not seem to have as much of this within the group, though I suspect it is merely redirected to nearby groups instead. It is ironic that the economically free societies which offer the widest variety in history of ways to make a living and reward an enormous variety of skills still display this envy and resentment. If we indeed show more of this resentment than is the human norm, then it is a depressing irony as well.
Relative Reward is Perceived as a Value Judgment.
Relatedly, we perceive people’s monetary compensation as a reward for their skills and values. When someone makes more, there is an implied “your society thinks your skills/virtues of lesser importance.” If we are persistent and accommodating, we think persistence and accommodation are high virtues and deserve to be seen as such. This works in the plural as well as the singular. If your group’s standout points are wit and broad reading, you and your friends will find it convenient to disparage the groups whose standout points are showmanship and social grace, or analytical thinking and memory.
Downtrodden groups often develop the personality skills of enduring suffering and loyalty. In some cosmic sense, these virtues really are more valuable than beauty and boldness. Unfortunately, they are not very saleable virtues in any economy. Beauty and boldness are. It is easy for the enduring and loyal to think that something has gone wrong with an entire society that doesn’t value them as they deserve. They will be attracted to belief systems that do value their skills and virtues, and seek for those belief systems to run the show in society.
When the reward gap is large, the resentment is large as well.
We are back to tribalism again. It seems unfair to us at profound levels that skillset A is handsomely rewarded while skillset B is disregarded when our tribe and value-system assure us that B is “really” a higher value. We can easily move from this to disparaging entire groups, classes, or regions of our fellow citizens. It’s highschool all over again, with jocks, hoods, nerds, Goths, goat-ropers, artists, and druggies all talking each other down. While ethnic and racial divisions attract the attention, these lesser divisions play out even when race and ethnicity are homogenous. They are the true training for adult snottiness.