Why has the topic of “inequality” been getting so much attention in recent years? I have a theory, which I’ll advance in a future piece. But first things first.

What do the writers who are obsessing about it mean by “inequality”? They basically mean inequality of income. That would make sense if we all agree that the most important way in which people are unequal is differences in income. But what if that isn’t the case? Almost all of the people who are doing the complaining have chosen professions that earn less income than they could have had. That is, all these professors and editorial writers could have gone to law school or gotten an MBA or done something else that would have earned them more money. Obviously, money isn’t the most important thing in their lives.

The list below shows some other ways in which people are unequal. These things basically can’t be purchased. But if we were really concerned about life’s unfairness, we could compensate those who have less of these attributes and tax those who have more.


Physical health

Mental health


Leisure time

Physical attractiveness

Athletic ability

Music ability

Life expectancy

Life is unfair.

On the last item, there has been a persistent gap between the life expectancies of men and women ― across all racial and ethnic groups. We don’t want to lower the life expectancy of women and we don’t know how to raise the life expectancy of men. But a general tax on women to be distributed to men would help redress some of nature’s injustice (see Dwight Lee.) Plus, with this tax there would be very little of the avoidance and evasion behavior we see with the income tax. (Not many people would get a sex change just to avoid paying it.)

To return to college professors, for a moment, they have an enormous amount of time to do whatever they feel like doing. They only have, say, six to nine hours of required work every week (teaching) and even then they have enormous discretion over what they actually do. Plus they have the whole summer off. The term “leisure time” doesn’t really capture what is going on here. Let’s just say they have leisurely jobs. Contrast that with people who have no discretion over how they perform their jobs, who work 40 hours a week or more, who hate their work and who can’t wait to retire. (College professors rarely want to retire.)

If you care a lot about inequality, an argument could be made for taxing college professors and giving the money to people whose work experience is boring, uninteresting, unfulfilling and has no purpose (for them) other than paying their bills.

If you believe Tom Wolfe, the most important thing on the list above is status. In Wolfe’s novels, status is far more important than income ― for almost everybody. What are some indictors of status? Being quoted in major newspapers. Being interviewed on TV. Winning a Nobel Prize. By way of contrast, think of all the people who have never been quoted in any newspaper, who have never been on TV and who have never won any prize. I believe there is far more inequality of status than inequality of income, although I’m not sure how to measure these things.

In any event, if inequality bothers you, think about a special tax on Nobel Prize winners, on TV talk show guests and on people whose names appear in the national news media ― with the proceeds distributed, of course, to people who have no status. Anyone called “counselor” or “esquire” or “doctor” is an obvious candidate for a status tax. Someone called both “professor” and “doctor” ought to be a candidate for double taxation. If the professor/doctor also has an eponymous blog, make that a triple tax!

I definitely would include politicians. In fact, if status is what is most important in life, there should be a special tax on elected officials and a huge tax on whoever is president.

There is a closely related issue. In my line of work I meet an enormous number of people who are frustrated because the world pays no attention to what they think. They have no forum from which to get their ideas in front of everyone else.

But imagine you could be an editorial writer for The New York Times. Better, imagine you could say anything you wanted to say ― ignoring facts and even saying things that are demonstrably untrue. Plus, no matter what you say, you never have to publish a retraction or apologize. Imagine that you could use your column to say mean and nasty things about people you don’t like and you could call them any name The NYT regards as “fit to print.”

Now imagine auctioning off the right to have this job. How much do you think people would be willing to pay? I’ll bet there would be some willing to pay $1 million for the opportunity.

In any event, there should be a special tax on whoever gets this job. A very big tax.

Comments (16)

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  1. Ken says:

    Excellent post.

  2. Preston Gorman says:

    Harrison Bergeron anyone?

  3. Tim says:

    I don’t quite agree. I don’t think most of the inequality rhetoric is solely in reference of income. At least in terms of social science, the inequality measure includes material and non-material differences, which transcends into issues of social exclusion. For example, violent and often referred as “ghettos” are prime examples of the contrast between affluence and destitution. While not as graphic as inequality in other countries, the developing ones, to say it’s an overstated of fabricated problem is simple erroneous.

  4. Tim says:

    Regarding the status argument, I don’t quite think it’s fully accurate. It may be in terms of what people with professional tracks in the professional world think about what is the ultimate goal in life. However, if you go to a vastly low-income area, people will often care less about status and worry more about if they’ll have enough money to transport themselves to work while constantly worrying whether they’ll lose their job or take an extra pay cut. The higher you rise in the social ladder, the more important the status notion becomes, but not for people who have more important things to worry about.

  5. Studebaker says:

    Research shows people are most satisfied when they earn more than their peers. By extension, they are less satisfied with their income when they earn less than other people. A survey once found more people preferred to earn $60,000 annually when their friends earned $50,000, than earn $100,000 when the average was $200,000.

  6. Greg Scandlen says:

    Kurt Vonnegut was way ahead of you. His 1961 short story, Harrison Bergeron, is described in Wikipedia —

    “It is the year 2081. Because of Amendments to the Constitution, every American is fully equal, meaning that no one is smarter, better-looking, stronger, or faster than anyone else. The Handicapper General and a team of agents ensure that the laws of equality are enforced. The government forces citizens to wear “handicaps” (a mask if they are too handsome or beautiful, earphones with deafening radio signals to make intelligent people unable to concentrate and form thoughts, and heavy weights to slow down those who are too strong or fast).”

    So it goes…

  7. Robert A. Hall says:

    When Conservatives speak of equality, they mean equality of opportunity. Liberals mean equality of outcomes. If I don’t study at all, and another student cracks the books, should she get an A and I an F, or should we both get a C to be equal? If men work longer hours, have more experience and more education than women, should women still be paid the same? If a orthopaedic surgeon puts in 14 years of education in the specialty, should the pay be the same for someone who majors in Peace Studies? Liberals also talk of fair, as in “paying their fair share” without defining it. And when they say “Justice” they mean “Stand and Deliver! I will link to this from my Old Jarhead blog. (

    Robert A. Hall
    USMC 1964-68
    USMCR, 1977-83
    Massachusetts Senate, 1973-83
    Author: The Coming Collapse of the American Republic
    All royalties go to help wounded veterans
    For a free PDF of my 80-page book, write tartanmarine(at)

  8. Peter Ferrara says:

    Policies to provide safety nets for the poor are justified. Policies to go beyond that and pursue redistribution for the purpose of making people more equal in terms of income and wealth cannot be justified. People are entitled to what they earn through free exchanges, which are primarily provided to compensate people for their productivity. They are entitled to what they save out of that income. Such further redistribution exacts a heavy cost in terms of both freedom and prosperity, and is morally no more than a sophisticated version of organized crime. It is symptomatic of tyranny. Harrison Bergeron precisely. See Chapter 9 of my 2011 book America’s Ticking Bankruptcy Bomb. Can anyone advise me as to an academic journal where I might submit an article on John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice?

  9. Johnny says:

    “If you care a lot about inequality, an argument could be made for taxing college professors and giving the money to people whose work experience is boring, uninteresting, unfulfilling and has no purpose (for them) other than paying their bills.”

    -This is a great idea. As a recent grad, I believe this could’ve been much more entertaining.

  10. David Hogberg says:

    Peter, I’m not convinced that such policies are justified, especially if they go from being a “safety net” to a way of life, which they often do. Once that happens, the people in those programs are not going to be engaging in the activities that lead to individual prosperity. Growing prosperity is the best way to reduce inequality, and government programs too often interfere with that.

  11. steve says:

    “To return to college professors, for a moment, they have an enormous amount of time to do whatever they feel like doing. They only have, say, six to nine hours of required work every week (teaching) and even then they have enormous discretion over what they actually do. Plus they have the whole summer off.”

    Ever talk to a real professor? James Joyner can correct your misimpression.


    • Chuck says:

      You totally miss the point… The whole discussion is a tongue-in-cheek illustration of the false premises and generalizations that are typically used to justify redistribution, i.e. the one percent don’t pay their fair share. Of course professors work hard – so do the CEO’s. They all earn what they have or else someone else would not have found it reasonable to pay them. You make the author’s point for him.

  12. Lewis Warne says:

    Extreme income inequality is merely a product of the current inequality of opportunity.

    In his recent book “Twilight of the Elites” Christopher Hayes explores the idea that inequality reinforces its self by unleveling the playing field.

    Freakonomics and Alan Krueger supports this idea by comparing income inequality to inter-generational mobility. ( Although it uses the Gini coefficient the international comparison still holds insight.

    I see inequality in the US as a problem, but I agree with the Hoover Institute that we should focus on leveling that playing field to rectify the situation.

    “Rather than focusing on income inequality, policymakers should address the very real impediments to achieving equality of opportunity, particularly for the youngest and least-skilled workers among us. We believe such efforts should begin with fixing our k-12 education system, which is failing to train many young Americans to be competitive in today’s global labor market”

  13. Joe Barnett says:

    Don’t forget Animal Farm: Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.
    This was the case in the Soviet Union. Lenin and Stalin didn’t have lavish lifestyles, but they wielded the power of the state, which gave them higher status than anyone else, regardless of income.

  14. Steve Dell says:

    Your list is demonstrably false, if by ‘false’ one means contradicted by highly positive correlations with wealth and income.
    To wit:
    Income: self-explanatory.
    Intelligence: only if one excludes all environmental influences, beginning in utero.
    Physical health: ditto.
    Mental health: severely negatively correlated with poverty in all its forms.
    Happiness: possibly: lacks a metric
    Leisure time: hah.
    Physical attractiveness: a very malleable quality, from diet to plastic surgery.
    Athletic ability: what one observes is a combination of innate ability (whatever that means), and the leisure to develop same. QED.
    Music ability: ditto.
    Life expectancy: hah!

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