Equality and Means Encroaching on Ends


"There is, in fact, a fatal tendency in all human activities for the means to encroach upon the very ends which they were intended to serve. Thus money comes to hinder the exchange of commodities, and rules of art to hamper genius, and examinations to prevent young men from becoming learned." ~ C.S. Lewis
I suspect that he is overstating this, as "all" is pretty strong. However, it is a common problem for people to get so worked up about something that they forget why they were doing it. I came across a couple of particularly-glaring examples of this recently. They were both news stories related to male/female income inequality, but in different ways, so I suspect that's a coincidence.

The first story (from Maclean's) was about the affects of having children on a working woman's future earnings. The main point was that it decreased them, and that a lot of this was because a year's maternity leave was long enough away to leave her disconnected from the business when she returned. I expect this effect was especially pronounced in business heavily influenced by new technology, but cell phones are turning that into practically everything. Men who took the same amount of time off (which appears to be allowed) had the same problem but were much less common, so this contributed to income disparity. The effect was less (or possibly gone entirely - the article wasn't clear) if the woman took less time off and/or stayed in contact with her business via e.g. phone and Skype.

So far, so good. I don't actually know much about the field, but this seems believable. The problem comes when I got to the proposed solutions. Some were pretty standard, such as flexible working hours. But there was one that seemed flawed: To encourage more men to take time off. The motivation appears to be that this would decrease the men's future earnings, and thus decrease the divide between men and women, bringing about greater sexual equality. To phrase it another way, we will make the men poorer so that the women aren't so far behind. The reasoning makes sense in a way, but something fundamental has been forgotten: The reason we wanted to reduce income disparity was so that the women would be better off. Here, we are instead going to make the men worse off, and, as children children are involved, it is pretty safe to assume that these men have wives (or some equivalent), and that these wives would be worse off if their husbands were poorer. So, in the name of feminism, we are now advocating policies to decrease women's living conditions.

The other story (from the Economist) was on the effects of assortive mating on income distribution between households. For those of you who have never heard the term before, assortive mating (in humans) refers to the tendency of people to marry (yes, "marry", not "mate with") other people of similar education, income, profession, etc. Over the last few decades, women have become a lot more educated, which generally makes them richer. As well, because people usually marry others who are similar to them (e.g. two doctors), the best-earning women largely wound up married to the best-earning men. Previously, the best-earning men would have married lower-earning women (e.g. a doctor and a nurse) because that was all that was available. And because income disparity for countries is normally measured by household not by individual (I assume because otherwise small children who have no income wreck the curve), this gives the appearance that the rich are getting richer. On the other end of the spectrum, poor men continue to marry poor women, so their households do not get richer.

Combining these two makes the society look more unequal. So much more unequal, in fact, that it explains almost all of the increasing income disparity over the last 30 years. Now in one sense this income disparity is real. After all, some families have more than others, which means the gap between rich and poor children will increase. On the other hand, people are not actually worse off, we have just rendered the inequality between highly-educated and not-so-highly-educated (which already existed) more visible. Given how often I hear that out health care system is too slow, I can only assume that more doctors benefits everyone. We have to remember why we dislike income equality. It isn't bad that people are rich, it's bad that people are poor.

Exactly how to solve this isn't clear. Maybe society should somehow defy market forces and pay menial labor more. Maybe unmarried people should spend more time with people in different professions (e.g. at churches, bars, local sports games, etc.) so that they are more likely to fall in love with someone in a different social class. Maybe people just need to stop caring some much about wealth above some minimal level (hopefully well above the PPP-adjusted $1.25/day international poverty line) and focus on some other measure of well-being. I don't know. But making women poorer again wouldn't help. Even if it did make the Gini Coefficient (the number used to measure income equality) go down.

I am not sure exactly what conclusion to draw from this, so I will go with one of my standards. Means are not ends, and a prudent compromise should not therefore become an ideal. Keep your eye on the goal.

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