Inequality is natural

The moot in a debate organised and run by VILP (Victoria International Leadership Programme) students on 15 October 2013 was: “Is inequality natural?”

I was on the affirmative team with Harry Berger and Even Bain, two smart and articulate Victoria students.

We won the debate 49-43. Once you adjust for the home ground advantage to the negative side (organised following the inequality symposium in Victoria earlier in the year, and debate opened by Max Rashbrooke, author of Inequality: A NZ Crisis – link to book here!), I reckon that pretty much counts as a land-slide victory 😉

Natural versus equitable

Our argument was very simple. Inequality is natural – as in it is in nature. We appealed to biology, evolution and human behaviour. But that it does not make it fair or equitable. We have to appeal to our humanity and empathy to deal with negatives of inequality – but those are defined in many cases by normative judgements that society has to agree on. 

The extreme political left believe in equality as a mantra: some kind of equal utopia. Even though history shows there is always inequality, although the extent and their manifestation vary. It can also become politics of envy and jealousy – how dare those rich have so much – rather than a cohesive set of strategies that balance incentives for innovation, safety nets, social mobility and equity of access to opportunities.

The extreme political right deny there is a problem. They argue there are necessary and sufficient incentives for the poor to pull themselves out. Social welfare is seen as molly coddling and excessing investment in education and health in poor areas itself unequal.

The reality is more complex and somewhere in the middle of these positions. The political tensions are real.


The tensions are deep and not always on the same logical plane. Political tension is clear, less so in NZ in my view than in the US. There is broad consensus in NZ on social welfare, although there is debate on what size, style and method is most effective.

So are the tensions between sufficient incentives for innovation to occur, and the ugly end of inequality: poverty. They aren’t quite on the same plane, but somehow they seem to run together. Mainly related to, I suspect, aggressive redistribution policies that can discourage innovation by reducing the reward for effort.

The tensions run deep amongst us as individuals and society. A number of game theory experiments that show big differences between altruistic intent versus actual behaviour. While we like the idea of looking after the poor, given the power to act, we tend to look after number one.

Income inequality

Even though much of the inequality debate in practice is about income inequality, we did not address is directly. It was strategic from a debating perspective, because we knew the opposition team would argue the unfairness of income inequality. But they resorted to ad hominem arguments and contradiction without supporting evidence rather than refuting the central point.

We discussed a little bit of income prospects on the back of education. Income growth over the past decade has been strongest for those with higher levels of education. For long term and enduring social mobility good quality education is key.

A complex problem with no easy solutions

It is tempting to boil problems down to one or two things. But inequality is too big and too important an issue to treat with such contempt.

In the debate, our contention was simply this: inequality is pervasive in nature and natural. In being natural, it requires unnatural interventions to reduce the ugly parts of inequality. But it also makes it very hard to change.

In accepting that inequality is natural, we can work towards achievable goals with a comprehensive suite of complementary policies that balance incentives for innovation, social mobility, safety nets and equity of access to opportunities.

6 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Indeed, nice argument. One thing I would add, which I think you have in here implicitly, is that as Sen says we really need to ask what it is that we value equality over – as equality in one sphere actually implies inequality in other spheres. Many people I’ve chatted to don’t see this element to it!

    Those who want to act as if “inequality” is a set bad and “equality” a set good are being naive and lazy – and basing policy on that would be dangerous. I am assuming no-one went to that extreme though, so this comment is not targeted at anyone 🙂

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Aff team here. We grossly underestimated the strength of the argument you guys would put up, expecting something much more dry and clinical given the topic and the difficulty of arguing for or against it. You were all fantastic and completely deserved to win!

    I think you’re right about the natural basis of equality. It’s big, complicated and hard to change like you say, and inherent in any society that progresses past agriculture and into what we’d think of as civil society. I’m really glad you said that doesn’t make it a good thing though. As a society it’s something we need to work on and change: Personally, I don’t accept that just because something is natural it should stay, and I’m glad that your side went down this line in the debate.

    My biggest issue is simply that any argument made for or against inequality in that debate could be flipped on its head to support the other side: for example, if prisons more Maori are imprisoned than is proportionate then that could enforce a standard of inequality, or the disproportionate representation could just as easily be termed a long-term natural result of New Zealand’s history, and if you run down a Fatal Impact theory line an inevitable result of two entirely different cultures clashing. Refugee inequality can be a natural response to their backgrounds and skills, or an unnatural result of people approaching the issue as if refugees are somehow less than them (Australia for example). That, I think, is part of why this is such a hard issue to debate: anything and everything can be twisted to support both sides. You did a much better job of working with and justifying the evidence than we did, and completely deserved to win as a result 🙂

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