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Who worries about income inequality?

| Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

I've never worried about income inequality. It's not that I've not worried much about it; I've not worried about it at all .

Income inequality — like the color of my neighbor's car or the question of the number of pigeons in Central Park — just never dawns on me as an issue worthy of a moment's attention. More importantly, I've never encountered many people who worry about inequality.

Indeed, the only time I had regular, close contact with people who express anxiety about inequality was when I was in law school at the University of Virginia. And there, those who wailed most loudly about inequality were those from families that were, as we say, the “most privileged.”

To this day, when I read or hear concerns expressed over income inequality, I'm always a bit mystified. “Why,” I shrug, “is that an issue?”

Of course, I know that income inequality is indeed an issue for many people and that for some it's the overriding issue.

So, I wonder: What makes someone worry about income inequality?

One personal characteristic that plausibly sparks obsession with inequality is envy. If your character is so poor that you can't resist the temptation to envy others, then you're someone who gets upset at the realization that some other people have more than you. You're likely to think a lot about income inequality and to bemoan it. You're a ready target for a demagogue who promises that, in return for you making him rich in political power, he'll rob those whom you envy.

Another characteristic, distinct from envy, that likely gives rise to concerns over income inequality is a mistaken conviction that the amount of wealth in the world is fixed. If the amount of wealth in the world were indeed fixed, then it would be true that the more wealth other people have, the less wealth you have. Economic well-being in such a world could be “redistributed” in whatever ways governments and “activists” fancy without destroying any wealth. There would indeed be little reason to tolerate any income differences whatsoever, given that wealth in such a world would exist independently of human motivations, choices and efforts.

A third personal characteristic that prompts anxiety over income inequality is fear that the “have-nots” will rape and pillage society until and unless they get more from the “haves.” This anxiety can exist regardless of how absolutely wealthy the “have-nots” are: As long as the “have-nots” have less than the “haves,” the “have-nots” might revolt, making life for everyone miserable.

This third characteristic is widespread today. The risk that the “have-nots” in modern First World economies will organize themselves using social media and then grab their electric carving knives to storm the wine bars and day spas of the “haves” is among the concerns that French economist Thomas Piketty raises in his megaselling volume “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

Perhaps this risk is real. But color me skeptical, given that Piketty felt the need to write a book to document the extent of inequality. If inequality, however real, must be tediously documented in an academic tome in order that its full extent be noticed, then this inequality is unlikely to spark revolution.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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