Economic inequality and the long-term future

Politics Philosophy and Economics (2023)
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Why, if at all, should we object to economic inequality? Some central arguments – the argument from decreasing marginal utility for example – invoke instrumental reasons and object to inequality because of its effects. Such instrumental arguments, however, often concern only the static effects of inequality and neglect its intertemporal conse- quences. In this article, we address this striking gap and investigate income inequality’s intertemporal consequences, including its potential effects on humanity’s (very) long-term future. Following recent arguments around future generations and so-called longtermism, those effects might arguably matter more than inequality’s short-term con- sequences. We assess whether we have instrumental reason to reduce economic inequality based on its intertemporal effects in the short, medium, and the very long term. We find a good short and medium-term instrumental case for lower economic inequality. We then argue, somewhat speculatively, that we have instrumental reasons for inequality reduction from a longtermist perspective too, primarily because greater inequality could increase existential risk. We thus have instrumental reasons to reduce inequality, regardless of which time-horizon we take. We then argue that from most consequentialist perspectives, this pro tanto reason also gives us all-things-considered reason. And even across most non-consequentialist views in philosophy, this argument gives us either an all-things-considered or at least weighty pro tanto reason against inequality.

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Andreas T. Schmidt
University of Groningen


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