Piketty, Rousseau and the desire for inequality

by Chris Bertram on December 9, 2015

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century tells us a great deal about the evolution of inequality in wealth and income over a long period and how that distribution is likely to evolve unless we intervene. What Piketty does not do is to tell us why inequality is bad or why people care about inequality, although we can glean some knowledge of his personal beliefs here and there. In what follows I draw on some aspects of Rousseauvian moral psychology to suggest that the reasons people care about inequality matter enormously and that because some people value inequality for its own sake, it will be harder (even harder than Piketty thinks) to steer our societies away from the whirlpool of inequality.

In the book, Piketty argues that, without significant political intervention, it is likely that wealth inequality will increase dramatically in the coming century and that a class of rentiers will come to dominate over those who earn their incomes from labour, just as previous classes of rentiers did before the twentieth century. His book tells of a U-shaped pattern in the evolution of inequality in the past hundred years, with high levels of inequality being reduced but then bouncing back. Striking levels of economic growth coupled with the destruction by war and revolution of the wealth that formed the background to previous inequality, led to societies that were an unprecedented combination of egalitarianism and meritocracy, where those who worked hard could do well for themselves and where the domination over the living by wealth inherited from ancestors had become greatly diminished.

One of the things Piketty’s work does is to provide an important historical contextualization of the work of John Rawls, showing that the type of society Rawls took to be the new normal, was not. It is striking how far Rawls’s picture of a functioning scheme of co-operation reflected and normalised a merely historically contingent state of affairs. Rawls’s ideal of a well-ordered national society, with its basic structure organizing citizens into functional roles to the end of implementing his two principles of justice can be seen as a cleaned-up and morally improved counterpart to the Keynesian national economies and welfare states that were typical of the developed states in mid-century. Citizens, their basic liberties guaranteed, brought their natural talents and acquired skills to market, and the rewards attached to the various position in economy and society were structured so that income inequalities worked to serve the goal of efficiency, to provide incentives, and thereby to ensure an income distribution that met the criterion of the difference principle and worked to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. Though the difference principle officially covered all those social primary goods not distributed by lexically prior principles, it is clear that income from work was the main thing up for grabs.

Piketty’s claim, then, is that all this is changing. We are moving from a high growth society to a low growth one, and income from the ownership of capital is coming to dominate income from labour as material inequality also grows. Moreover, there’s a vicious cycle at work: low growth both fosters inequality but also the inequality we are getting is a barrier to growth. The amount of income available to those who work hard or innovate is diminishing, the amount available to those who are actually or practically rentiers is increasing. With the passing of the mid-twentieth century norm, the tradeoff that the difference principle standardly invoked, that we should tolerate some inequality to provide the incentives that would improve everyone’s non-comparative good — how well people do in terms of wealth and income independently of how well others do — has largely been replaced. Now the pursuit of that good does not require permitting inequality so much as its active suppression, because it has gone beyond the point where it is necessary for growth and reached a degree where it suppresses growth, to the great detriment of those who have least.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Piketty himself does not have that much to say about why inequality is bad, or why people care about it. In the main, he simply documents the facts. In many respects this abstinence from moral philosophy is a strength. After all, there are many different reasons people care about inequality or believe that it is bad or unjust. If “inequality is bad or unjust” is within an “overlapping consensus”, then we can rely on that shared belief in further theorizing and argument without settling the question of why it is bad or unjust. People who believe that inequality is intrinsically wrong or unjust can then make common cause with those who think it is bad for instrumental reasons, often alongside those whose real opposition is to other ills, such as widespread poverty.

However, we can discern some of Piketty’s own normative commitments in his text, and these constitute something of a thin and conditional opposition to inequality even if — for all we know — they may not exhaust the reasons he believes inequality is bad or wrong. Two reasons stand out (perhaps more in later elaborations than in the book). The first is that whilst he believes that some inequality may be good for growth, he thinks that too much inequality can stifle it. The second is that he believes that when inequalities are too great, democracy becomes unsustainable. Both of these reasons are compatible with a broadly egalitarian liberalism and with modern republicanism, and Piketty references both the work of John Rawls and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in support of his general position. Further, it seems reasonably clear that Piketty also endorses the Rawlsian view that inequalities within a state matter more than global inequalities do and for different reasons: the state has a duty to ensure that citizens enjoy equality of status with one another and this would be undermined by too much inequality of wealth and income. Globally there is no state with such a duty, nor citizens standing in a political relationship with one another. So the critique of global inequality must proceed on a different basis, and it is not central to Piketty’s concerns.

As well as abstaining from moral commentary, Piketty also says little about the social and psychological reasons people care about inequality, but he says more than nothing. For example, he writes of the reasons given for paying some French administrators very high salaries, explaining that this was thought necessary because otherwise they would lack the social status necessary to deal on equal terms with wealthy elites. But most of the time, when Piketty is considering these questions at all, his focus is on the second set of issues, and here he is a solid materialist and economist: what matters it that people have the material resources necessary to lead good lives and inequality is a good thing if it provides (the worst off with) more of those things, and a bad thing if it does not. His concern here is mainly with people’s non-comparative good. Some inequality has the effect of promoting that good, because it fosters growth, but too much inequality chokes it off and is therefore bad. (I put to one side here the fact that, because of competitive bidding for scare resources, inequality can affect people’s non-comparative good directly, because the can outbid or be outbid by others for nice houses and the like.)

As economists tend to focus on people’s non-comparative good, they also tend to neglect an important dimension of what people care about, having to do with pride, shame, recognition and the reactive attitudes. People don’t just care about what they are objectively able to do with the resources they have, they also care about their standing, their reputation and its acknowledgement by others. This is an old distinction and it is central to Rousseau’s philosophical anthropology as found, in his Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men. According to Rousseau, people have two kinds of self-interested drive. On the one hand there is amour de soi même, an interest in non-comparative good, in being well fed, clothed, sheltered and healthy. On the other there is amour propre, a drive to secure recognition in the eyes of others as being of value which can turn into feelings of resentment and humiliation when it is not satisfied. My contention here is that something like Rousseau’s distinction is necessary to understand the situation we are now in, and why it is going to be so hard for us to get out of it. Amour propre explains, as Frederick Neuhouser puts it,

how humans can be led to seek out inequalities for their own sake, as public demonstrations of the superior standing they are out to achieve. The range of human phenomena that depend on such an impulse to inequality is extensive and familiar: the endless pursuit of wealth, ostentatious consumption, the relentless drive to compete and outdo … all are manifestations of the “fervor,” inspired by amour propre, “to raise one’s relative fortune, [not] out of genuine need [but] in order to place oneself above others” (OC III, 175) [1]

The coexistence of these two drives naturally raises the interesting question of what people want when they are in conflict. To put it crudely, would people prefer to be better off in their objective standard of living, or would they prefer that they be relatively better off than others? That’s an empirical question and one to which I don’t have an answer that’s supported by evidence, but some reasonable speculation is possible. People who are poor, who lack the basic amenities in life and who have to work very long hours just to make ends meet will, no doubt, have some concerns about their relative standing. But the urgency of their material needs will be such that an improvement in those conditions will be what they care about most. Being adequately fed, having decent sanitation and then access to labour-saving devices like washing machines is going to loom large in their priorities.

By contrast, someone who is extremely wealthy already, whose every imaginable material need is met, who can afford to spend money on private jets and Hermes Birkin bags, is going to be more concerned with relativities and with securing the kind of respect and recognition that such a person believes they are due from those with less. They will also often value relations with ordinary people which have the quality of deference, of cowed compliance, of those other people “knowing their place” and, where visible at all, acting as instruments of the wealthy person’s will. To the one percenter, the subjection of others matters more than the further satisfaction of material need; to the person at the bottom, the satisfaction of need requires their own subjection because they have to accept that subjection in order to earn money to satisfy their material needs.

Notice how this picture inverts one of the standard tropes of the right-wing commentariat. According to endless pundits, it is the egalitarian left, obsessed with a “politics of envy”, who irrationally focus on the distribution of wealth and income at the expense of what really matters, making people’s lives better. But here we see that a focus on inequality, indeed a lust for inequality, is characteristic of the wealthy who value inequality for its own sake and who rejoice in the subordination of their fellows.

Since the crisis of 2008 there has been a continuous argument between proponents of austerity and those economists, influenced by Keynes, such as Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis who have argued that austerity and cuts are unnecessary and that a plausible expansionary recovery is possible. Pundits and politicians of a more conservative bent have pushed the line that structural changes in the economy are needed, involving more flexibility from the workforce, that public services should be “streamlined” and scaled back and that welfare programmes should be cut to provide people with incentives to get back into work, and so forth. Suppose, as seems plausible to me, that the Krugmans, Wren-Lewises, and company are broadly right. If they are then there’s a choice available between an “economically rational” policy with higher rates of growth and lower inequality , on the one hand, and an economically inferior policy with lower growth rates and higher inequality, on the other. In the second scenario we find the poorest members of society in an increasingly subordinated position with their best option often being precarious work on zero-hours contracts. On the “economically rational” view of the world the latter choice just looks crazy. After all, given compounding, over the long term higher growth rates make everybody better off. The poor would be richer, sure, but so would those at the very top.

But if, as I suggest above, people care not just about doing better with respect to their non-comparative good, but are also in the grip of powerful drives that can lead them to favour inequality, a different picture emerges. If the wealthiest members of society are strongly motivated to pursue and enforce inequality as a means of asserting their own dominance over others then, since they already have the material means at their disposal to satisfy all their consumption desires, they will (or enough of them will) favour policies that enhance the subordination of the least advantaged and make those people disposed to act according to the bidding of the wealthy. What Krugman, Wren-Lewis and others therefore see as an irrational policy preference becomes a rational one, given the things those in the elite most care about.

Where does this leave democracy? Piketty fears that given rising levels of wealth inequality, democracy is doomed. People will not tolerate high levels of inequality forever, and repressing their resistance to an unequal social order will eventually require dispensing with democratic forms. I’m not so sure. A highly unequal society in wealth and income is certainly incompatible with a society of equal citizens, standing in relations of equal respect to one another and satisfying their amour propre, their craving for recognition though a sense of shared citizenship. (This benign outcome roughly corresponds to the Rawlsian ideal of a well-ordered society where the social bases of self-respect are in place.) But the outward form of democracy, its procedures, are surely compatible with great inequality, just so long as the wealthy can construct a large enough electoral coalition to win or can ensure that the median voter is the kind of “aspirational” person who identifies with the one per cent, even though they are not of it. In an unequal society such people are very common. They may be very poor compared to the super-rich, but they have just enough to take pride in their status as members of “hard working families” and to hope for the lucky break that will elevate them. At the same time they can look down with contempt on the welfare claimant and the “illegal” immigrant, nurturing their own amour propre by taking satisfaction in what they are not. Here we have, in another guise, the phenomenon of the “poor white” who looks down on poorer blacks and is thereby impelled to sustain a hierarchical social order. Procedural democracy limping on against a background of inequality, disdain and humiliaton is not an attractive prospect, but it is already a big part of our present and may be the whole of our future unless egalitarian politics can be revived. [2]

[1] Frederick Neuhouser, Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) p. 79.

[2] Many thanks to Martin O’Neill for comments.



Rakesh Bhandari 12.09.15 at 3:51 pm

Actually I do think Piketty underlines motivations such as amour propre–it would allow us to make sense of the savings behavior of the very wealthy that cannot be explained in terms of the life-cycle hypothesis. The very wealthy save to gain recognition and honor by creating dynasties and endowments in their name; the accumulation of wealth brings prestige and power, and the savings behavior of the wealthy is incomprehensible without reference to such motives. Piketty is quite clear about this.

Piketty also argues that the inequality of rentier society is at odds with the widely shared or consensual meritocratic values that provide normative support for competitive markets.

He also does argue that widening inequality did play a role in the recent financial crisis.


reason 12.09.15 at 4:17 pm

I don’t think this will do. The most repressive views are held not by the very top elite (who probably care about the very poor as much as they do about ants), but by those feeling the squeeze in the middle. I think it is not so much a preference for inequality, as a fear of loss of status that is driving much of the political evil. The vicious circle relates to rates of change going from positive to negative, not issues of absolute relative position.


bob mcmanus 12.09.15 at 4:42 pm

What Krugman, Wren-Lewis and others therefore see as an irrational policy preference becomes a rational one

Hard Money is Not a Mistake …Steve Randy Waldmann on both the very wealthy and moderately wealthy

The very wealthy are motivated both by the desire for absolute and relative status; and by the need for insurance, by fear. The immediate post-WWII elites had the memory of catastrophic loss of wealth and status, and only took the risks involved in re-stratification after a certain degree of global and national stability was assured.


Peter K. 12.09.15 at 6:04 pm

“But the outward form of democracy, its procedures, are surely compatible with great inequality, just so long as the wealthy can construct a large enough electoral coalition to win or can ensure that the median voter is the kind of “aspirational” person who identifies with the one per cent, even though they are not of it.”

I think that is falling apart or at least is in the United States. The Republicans are unable to win at the national level any more. Arguably Bush won first because of the Supreme Court (and the paltriness of Gore) and second because of 9/11 and war fever. They are set to lose again in 2016. But they did manage to get through Citizens United and that’s partly how they are holding on, via massive amount of money in politics.

Congressional districts are gerrymandered to prevent democratic outcomes and Republicans strive to suppress voter turnout as an electoral strategy. And demographics are against them.

I’d also argue that voters are becoming more secular and anti-authoritarian (see gay marriage and legalized marijuana) especially among the young. The Republican Party was always a coalition of money and religious extremists and the latter is shrinking demographically even as more and more money floods campaigns.

So I think it’s too early to tell if the outward form of democracy is compatible with rising inequality. Bush v. Gore pushed the limits. Justice Roberts felt that nullifying Obamacare was a bridge to far and voted with the Democrats to the consternation of Republican opponents of the law.

I think the Obama administration, all in all, was a small move in the direction of equality. Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and the reversal of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. It’s been a mixed bag, with TPP and a very slow recovery with most gains going to the top. Drones and the surveillance state. But that’s with a Republican Congress fiercely pushing a rearguard action.

The more likely scenario is that we’re witnessing the death throes of the Republican Party. The big money wanted Jeb!. The useful idiots of Kansas want Trump or Carson.


Bruce Wilder 12.09.15 at 6:09 pm

This somehow seemed an appropriate link to illustrate dystopia emerging on the horizon:


LFC 12.09.15 at 6:35 pm

Very interesting post (n.b. haven’t read CintheC21).

js. (who’s a philosopher by training) and I (not a philosopher) have just been discussing some related issues about inequality at my blog (see the comment thread to the post “questions about inequality”).

If I were to question Chris B.’s picture, it might be to doubt (along with at least one of the comments above) whether the very rich are actually as interested, psychologically, in subordinating the poor as he suggests. The prevailing attitude may be closer to indifference, as reason @2 says. Also, at the very top of the distribution, there are some who apparently feel, for whatever reasons, some kind of philanthropic or other obligation to do something with their wealth that may cut vs. the picture of complete interest in ‘domination’: e.g. Gates, Zuckerberg. Not that I think that will change things drastically.

Lastly, it’s perhaps worth noting that Rawls, no less than Rousseau, was interested in moral psychology. In A Theory of Justice R. has an account of moral psychology intended to buttress his claim that self-respect (not income) is the most important of the primary goods. (Rawls also has a notion of “reasonable envy,” as Jeffrey Green has pointed out.) Chris chooses in the post to gloss over this aspect of Rawls in favor of portraying him as being mostly concerned with the distribution of income in isolation from the moral-psychological underpinnings.


engels 12.09.15 at 7:04 pm

Iana sociologist but my suspicion is in so far as (some/many) people in a hierarchical society may have a psychological interest in others’ low status it mainly concerns those directly below them in status. Things get complicated when you consider that doing down the people below me might be helped by boosting the people below them. Bourdieu is good on this sort of stuff iirc. Chris may be on the right track but the argument particularly in the penultimate para seems a tad over-simplified.


LFC 12.09.15 at 7:12 pm

I see Chris does refer in last paragraph to “the Rawlsian ideal of a well-ordered society where the social bases of self-respect are in place.” So I take back, to some degree, what I said on that.


Lawrence Stuart 12.09.15 at 7:31 pm

‘Here we have, in another guise, the phenomenon of the “poor white” who looks down on poorer blacks and is thereby impelled to sustain a hierarchical social order.’

More than that, the poorer group comes to be seen as an active impediment (‘moochers,’ & etc.) to the mimetic aspirations of the strivers, performing what Girard would call a scapegoat function. Thus the poorest are not simply beneath, and therefore useful to, the status concerns of the aspirant group; they are not even worthy of pity, to say nothing of concern and respect. The poor are a problem, but not as a symptom of structurally generated inequality. In the narrative of scapegoating they function as the very cause of social incohesion aspirational frustration. Violent repression becomes justified as a morally necessary and socially virtuous act.


Sebastian H 12.09.15 at 7:59 pm

I don’t know if it changes many of the approaches, but I agree with reason at 2 that loss aversion is a major player. I believe it is well established that people will very often choose an inferior long term choice to avoid short term losses. The very rich aren’t as worried about keeping people down as they are about staying ahead of their near peers.


T 12.09.15 at 8:24 pm

I was losing you a bit until the last half of the last paragraph. It seems that the success of the Republican coalition, esp. in the South, relied upon the perceived class distinction between working class and poor whites relative to poor blacks. However, the rise of Trump seems to have a strong flavor of working class whites angry about their absolute rather than relative position (not that the relative position argument has gone away.) And this rift between working class whites and the Republican mainstream is now splitting the party. (And I’ve ignored the TP types who tend to be wealthier and older than the average voter in contrast to the Trump supporters.)

I’d be interested in your reaction to my observation in the context of your post.


Geoff Arnold 12.09.15 at 8:55 pm

I don’t have time to develop this idea (I’m sneaking a peek at this during my lunch), but it seems intuitively obvious that some of the negative effects of inequality are associated with increasingly concentrated mass media, particularly (1) the depiction of normative (and aspirational) ideals, and (2) the breakdown in the distinction between news and entertainment.

Of course as a scientist/engineer, I’m aware of the weakness of “intuitively obvious” ideas. However….



Peter K. 12.09.15 at 9:02 pm

@11 Trump’s supporters agree with his xenophobia over Mexicans and economics and Muslims and terrorism. When Trump first began saying thing about Mexicans being rapists and criminals, the largest neo-Nazi organization endorsed him on their web site. He was something new.

Now you might see what’s left of the Republican establishment attacking him but it will be too little too late.


T 12.09.15 at 9:13 pm

I’ve linked to that Waldman post on several occasions at CT. I think the tension of keeping the coalition between the Republican elites and working class whites will determine whether the policies favoring inequality are sustained. In the meantime, of course, the moneyed elements of the coalition are working furiously to allow more money onto the process and disenfranchise the opposition.

btw — I don’t think the Waldman argument needs to be traced to the folks straddling WWII that lost out in the 30’s and 40’s. Those folks are long dead. It’s more about general risk aversion.


T 12.09.15 at 9:24 pm

Trump is the only figure that has vowed to fight against trade deals, immigration, and banking/financialization — the perceived root causes of the problems faced by his supporters. The Republican elites are the primary proponents of those three policies. The left is on board with the trade and banking issues. Remember, before civil rights were an issue, working class whites across the South were Democrats in coalition with progressives concerned about the banks and concentrated power. It’s really the race issue that prevents a populist/progressive coalition on many of these issues — something FDR didn’t have to contend with.


phenomenal cat 12.09.15 at 9:35 pm

“The very wealthy are motivated both by the desire for absolute and relative status; and by the need for insurance, by fear. The immediate post-WWII elites had the memory of catastrophic loss of wealth and status, and only took the risks involved in re-stratification after a certain degree of global and national stability was assured.” McManus @ 3

I think that gets at the issue rather succinctly. I see little evidence that the very wealthy have even a faint notion of the day to day realities confronting the shrinking (but still vast) middle; never mind the poorest. For that matter most of the middle-class has essentially no functional sense of the realities the poor live in. It apparently required titanic social convulsions, wars, and world-wide depression to convince the very wealthy that a more equitable society was needed.

And I’m no labor historian, but one doesn’t have to be to know that the relative socio-economic equality of the mid 20th century was won in no small part b/c the laboring classes of previous generations were willing to risk open conflict with corporate and government power. Were that to happen again we might see some real change. Of course, for that to happen social conditions may get very bad indeed.

Anyway, the point is that the very wealthy do not see, hear, feel, or know working people or the poor except as an abstraction; so they are unlikely to give an inch until they are made viscerally aware.


Peter Dorman 12.09.15 at 9:58 pm

Chris B’s essay strikes me as rather odd in this context. I won’t dispute anything he says, but I wonder how it connects.

First, he focuses on the amour propre of the 1%, which impels them to oppose the kinds of measures Piketty favors for re-equalizing income and wealth, like a tax on capital. Yet how does this alter our assessment of the politics? Surely the opposition of the rich to a redistributive program is a given. The practical question is whether this pro-inequality motive has much influence on the 99%. That’s an old debate topic, of course, with subtopics on racial hierarchy, working class disdain for the “undeserving poor”, etc.

Second, he raises the issue posed by Krugman, Wren-Lewis et al. (I guess I’m a tiny part of that al.) concerning the elite opposition to Keynesian countercyclical policies. Amour propre may be raging in the elite heart, but it does not explain why it is not possible to assemble a cross-class Keynesian coalition today, but it was a generation or two ago. We need a historically specific argument.

Candidates: globalization (the divorce of profit rates from national growth and employment conditions), the greater ability to reduce the labor share in a depressed environment, the withering of the special Depression/post WWII conditions that imposed a class compromise, the collapse of the Soviet Union and disappearance of any threat of socialist-inspired expropriation, and financialization and the greater role played by credit, including financial asset holdings of nonfinancial corporations. An upsurge in amour propre? Probably not.


Bruce B. 12.09.15 at 11:11 pm

Peter K, when you say ” The Republicans are unable to win at the national level any more.”, you mean exclusively the presidency, right? Because I see 246 Republicans out of 435 in the House of Representatives and 54 Republicans out of 100 in the Senate, and this is not a weirdly unusual kind of outcome. (I initially wrote but took out bits about the growing mass disenfranchisement by various means underway in Republican states, and about the extent to which coordinated or independent refusals by Republican governors and state governments can undermine federal action even when Democrats do have more legislative presence. I will note the very precarious states of the courts, and the ways Republican legislatures can undercut the ability of Democratic executive agencies to operate efficiently or sometimes at all, thanks to the power over appointments.)


LFC 12.09.15 at 11:25 pm

The OP is a story of dueling amours propres. On one hand, the wealthy, or a sizable fraction of them, secure recognition by ‘keeping the poor (and non-wealthy in general) down’ or in their place; on the other hand, the amour propre of everyone else would be realized “through a sense of shared citizenship” that high levels of inequality corrode:

A highly unequal society in wealth and income is certainly incompatible with a society of equal citizens, standing in relations of equal respect to one another and satisfying their amour propre, their craving for recognition though a sense of shared citizenship.

Yet, it’s only a portion of the very wealthy who directly spend their money to try to ensure that levels of inequality remain high (e.g., those who fund conservative candidates). Others of them spend their money more on, for ex., works of art. At least a few build private museums to house their art collections, which they may or may not occasionally open to the public. Although such activity supports certain artists (some of whom, given the vagaries of the market, doubtless become rather wealthy themselves), it doesn’t do that much directly to either reinforce or lessen economic inequality across the society, except probably on the margins. It’s an example of an activity engaged in by people who are drowning in money and decide that it would be cool to become an art collector (for reasons that might include status/recognition or might even in some cases include a genuine interest in art).

This kind of activity suggests a sort of competition for status within a small group who may move in similar circles, know the same sorts of people, socialize together etc., and it raises the question whether an ethnography of the one percent would find that a fair number of them live pretty much in their own world and, while they no doubt expect deference from people who directly serve them in one way or another, may not care that much about enforcing a general condition of submission or subordination on everyone else in general, b.c they just don’t come in contact with them that often.


Lawrence Stuart 12.10.15 at 12:43 am

@Peter Dorman– Not presuming to speak for Chris Bertram, but simply my own response to your post.

All those big structural causes are no doubt in play, and one could no doubt make a fine technical analysis of any of them. But the question, the important political question, is how those tectonic level movements are related to quotidian reality, the lives and times of we mortals floating on the shifting plates. But that’s not enough. The very idea of big historical changes causing life changes has to be addressed as well–because those historical facts are themselves the result of human actions. They are both causes and effects. We aren’t just floating, we are making history.

Amour propre is one way of approaching the way in which human desire for something non-material, for recognition, can be a causal force. It allows one to investigate the change in patterns, not just of rational thought, but of limbic level impulse and feeling that, for example, the neo-liberal paradigm shift was able to both create, and harness; the shift in patterns, both of what is desirable, and of what is the social self, that allowed the right to push through an agenda of structural change. So a rise in amour propre as a causal factor? Maybe better to say a change in its significance, but yes, certainly it is a useful way of looking at some important issues, like why we can’t assemble a cross class Keynesian coalition (the answer being, from my perspective, that many peoples’ understanding of what is required for self respect have been profoundly, and deliberately, changed).


Colin 12.10.15 at 12:46 am

How successful is the amour propre theory in explaining the fate of ‘least developed countries’ that are extremely unequal and economically stagnant? The elites of these countries could become far richer in the medium term if they could invest in industrialisation, rather than simply skimming as much as they can from the existing economy. Is it simply a coordination failure, or is it a system working as intended, where the continued subordination of those further down the ladder to hierarchies of patronage is a more important goal than any absolute gains in elite income? (For this to be a meaningful goal, the elites don’t have to see what’s happening all the way down to the bottom, just as far as the class of immediate subordinates, who then work to subordinate those below them, and so on.)

Perhaps it is useful to distinguish between a plutocratic regime, where the elites focus on getting richer in absolute terms, which is most easily achieved by growing the economy as a whole (once the plutocrats are in a position to keep most of the growth for themselves), and a kleptocratic regime, where the elites are mainly focused on relative wealth, which is most easily achieved by simply plundering the rest of the economy (whether through outright theft and extortion, or the more sophisticated plundering involved in financial scams). A plutocracy could be quite tolerable for those at the bottom, whereas a kleptocracy is always oppressive.


js. 12.10.15 at 1:25 am

I like this take quite a lot. It seems to me that a lot of people who are “disagreeing” with CB are really just restating his argument (with perhaps a slightly different emphasis). In which I don’t include Peter Dorman, who makes good points.

One thing: An interest in relative advantage, socially speaking (the thing CB is focusing on), doesn’t imply an interest in the poor (which is what a lot people in the comments seem to be objecting to). Being motivated to keep society unequal is perfectly compatible with never giving a thought to poverty (it seems to me).


LFC 12.10.15 at 3:30 am

Colin @21 raises interesting questions. W/r/t poorer countries, blame for inequality probably has to be shared in complicated ways between local elites and features of the global economy (and corporations who benefit from them). In those settings it’s also perhaps somewhat harder to disentangle the issue of (extreme) inequality from that of absolute poverty (though they’re conceptually distinct). And then there’s the oft-commented-on role of natural resources. Thus e.g. Angola, an oil exporter and far from the world’s poorest country in GDP terms, has, I believe, the highest child mortality rate in the world; Nigeria, a major oil exporter, has marked inequality, etc.

With respect to plutocracy vs. kleptocracy, my guess, and it’s only a guess, would be that ‘pure’ kleptocracy (where the elites simply plunder, rather than appropriate for themselves the lion’s share of economic growth) would likely be found in small countries without much in the way of a resource base. But in practice I’m not sure it’s that’s easy to distinguish plutocracy from kleptocracy since, e.g., corruption, which can be seen as a form of extortion, can be a significant source of wealth/income even when a country’s economy is growing. To take two examples, Mobutu (Zaire/DRCongo) and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos (Philippines) amassed huge personal fortunes through corruption and theft of one sort or another, even in growing economies.* Those are pretty extreme cases in terms of flamboyance, whereas today my sense is that their successors, where they exist, are better at staying below the radar screen of world attention. I couldn’t even remember just now the name of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, long-time pres. of Angola, and had to look it up.

*In a nod to geo and Chomsky et al., I will note that both Mobutu and the Marcoses were Cold War clients of the U.S. (It was Reagan who actually left the Marcoses to their fate or refused to ‘save’ them, but things had changed and 1986 was no longer, say, 1953 or even 1973. However, this gets far away from the OP.)


Tabasco 12.10.15 at 8:30 am

It was all said by the great Polish economist Kalecki at Cambridge in 1942. As summarised by Wikipedia:

“While Kalecki was generally enthusiastic about the Keynesian revolution, he predicted that it would not endure, in his article “Political Aspects of Full Employment”, which Anatole Kaletsky has called one of the “most prescient economic paper ever published.”[6] In the article Kalecki predicted that the full employment delivered by Keynesian policy would eventually lead to a more assertive working class and weakening of the social position of business leaders, causing the elite to use their political power to force the displacement of the Keynesian policy even though profits would be higher than under a laissez faire system: The erosion of social prestige and political power would be unacceptable to the elites despite higher profits”

Or for the whole thing,

My favourite part

“subsidizing mass consumption is much more violently opposed by [business leaders] than public investment. For here a moral principle of the highest importance is at stake. The fundamentals of capitalist ethics require that ‘you shall earn your bread in sweat’ — unless you happen to have private means.”


Ben 12.10.15 at 9:54 am

All very interesting, but empirical claims require empirical evidence. Is there, in fact, evidence supporting the psychological claims in this article? I don’t say that it doesn’t exist, but I do say that you haven’t presented it here.


reason 12.10.15 at 10:24 am

Bruce Wilder @5
What I find interesting about that link is the parallel to the Trump phenomenon. The emergence of people on the right who represent a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the liberal view of the right. The death of irony?


Val 12.10.15 at 11:25 am

From a public health point of view, this is almost – ‘it’s completely obvious’. Overall, on average, if you are poorer, your health won’t be as good. You won’t live as long, and your opportunity to enjoy life will be reduced. And that is completely wrong. So in that sense there is no argument – inequality is a problem. But it’s taken me, probably like most public health people, years to absorb that, to see it that simply. So I shouldn’t be impatient that other people seem to complicate the issue.

But as to what we should do about it, that’s much more difficult. It’s one of the major questions of my thesis and it makes me feel tired even talking about it. I am, as I’ve said several times on CT, coming to the conclusion that patriarchal hierarchy is the basic problem that needs to be addressed. I know that many (though not all) here will probably either ignore this or ridicule it, but you know, it’s my research, I have to keep defending it.


James Wimberley 12.10.15 at 11:40 am

A significant and highly visible subset of the very rich, the celebrities, want much more than deference from the masses: they want, and for entertainers depend on, their active admiration. Their media presence is of course far greater than their share of wealth (contrast millionaire Neymar and the billionaire Marinho family). The Brazilian poor empathize with the former, not the latter. This means that the celebrities play a disproportionate part in the cultural dialogue and reproduction of inequality. I’m not sure how this fits in with the OP. Isn’t Donald Trump a celebrity more than a billionaire?


LFC 12.10.15 at 1:36 pm

Val @27
Overall, on average, if you are poorer, your health won’t be as good. You won’t live as long, and your opportunity to enjoy life will be reduced. And that is completely wrong. So in that sense there is no argument – inequality is a problem. But it’s taken me, probably like most public health people, years to absorb that, to see it that simply. So I shouldn’t be impatient that other people seem to complicate the issue.

But inequality and poverty, while often very closely connected in the world as it exists, are not the same. They are different phenomena.

It would be possible to imagine a society in which everyone’s basic needs were met, in which everyone had decent food, shelter, health care, clothing, employment, leisure etc. (and also in which there was no patriarchy), but in which a small group at the top had 10,000 times more income and/or wealth than those at the bottom. No poverty in that society, but plenty of inequality. You can dismiss that scenario as a hypothetical of interest only to philosophers, but it does underline that inequality and poverty are conceptually distinct. So are ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty (the latter is actually another way of saying inequality in some circumstances).

I appreciate your desire to cut right to what you see as the heart of the matter, but in a discussion of this sort it’s best, I think, not to let that blur certain distinctions. In terms of diagnosis, you might still conclude that patriarchal hierarchy is the root cause of everything most of us deem undesirable (poverty both absolute and relative, high inequality, kleptocracy, bad public health outcomes, violence, etc.), and for all I know you might very well be right. But I don’t think it’s really fair to imply that the OP and comments here, or this Piketty symposium as a whole, are complicating what is actually an entirely simple, straightforward, uncomplicated issue.


ZM 12.10.15 at 1:49 pm


“It would be possible to imagine a society in which everyone’s basic needs were met, in which everyone had decent food, shelter, health care, clothing, employment, leisure etc. (and also in which there was no patriarchy), but in which a small group at the top had 10,000 times more income and/or wealth than those at the bottom.”

You might not remember that Val’s research project isn’t just a public health project it is about environmental sustainability. Given the Earth’s resources and limits, and the human population, I am not sure your example would be environmentally sustainable.

I think this is an issue in the OP too, it says “After all, given compounding, over the long term higher growth rates make everybody better off. The poor would be richer, sure, but so would those at the very top.”

But if higher growth rates are linked to higher rates of material consumption (as they are in real life to date) then “over the long term” higher growth does not necessarily lead to making everyone better off — it could make people worse off due to compounding of problems of unsustainable consumption which then people have to deal with the results in decades to come.

I went to a talk about Piketty at uni about this and asked the Australian economist Ross Garnaut about this, and he said maybe to be sustainable the growth could be in health care and books, especially digital books to save paper.

I am not sure many people want 10,000 times more books and health care than average, so I guess that might help inequality as well …


LFC 12.10.15 at 1:58 pm

not sure your example would be environmentally sustainable

Fair enough. I was just trying to use a hypothetical that would make clear the poverty/inequality distinction.


reason 12.10.15 at 2:14 pm

LFC @29
In the same vein, maybe the concepts of patriarchy and hierarchy could be kept separate (although I do see that within a family they may amount to the same thing). But as I see it in Asian societies which are both clearly patriarchical and heirachical, the evidence is that hierarchy dominates patriarchy, at least in their choice of leaders, whereas in the West even quite egalitarian societies remained consistently patriarchal.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 12.10.15 at 3:08 pm

Hierarchy and Patriarchy are as entwined as race and class are, at least in the US.
And they are usually discussed in subtext, like race and class are.


Primadent 12.10.15 at 3:38 pm

Hey english world, just so you know, Piketty now has a twitter account and a blog hosted by Le Monde : https://twitter.com/PikettyLeMonde


William Meyer 12.10.15 at 3:52 pm

If you look at society in terms of sexual selection, income inequality is a feature, not a bug for males able to “win” that competition. And since sexual selection is graded on a curve, not in absolute terms, there is no escape from it at any given income level. As the joke used to go: “God invented rock and roll so ugly guys could get laid too.” I would alter that somewhat and observe that favorably positioned men support income inequality because it allows them better access to the partners of their choice. Of course since this ends up with terribly socially harmful outcomes I would strongly support limiting wealth and income levels to much more modest levels than seen today–which really would end up as no big deal because, as I mentioned before, sexual selection is graded on a curve.


LFC 12.10.15 at 4:00 pm

reason @32:


anti-onomist 12.10.15 at 7:29 pm

The only way out of this is for a radical spiritual revolution and a new re-legitimized mendicancy via an invigorated Papacy.


Peter K. 12.10.15 at 8:59 pm


Yes, Congressional elections are not national.


Val 12.10.15 at 9:07 pm

LFC @ 29
Your view that I over-simplified is probably justified. I also can see that there is a slightly melodramatic tone appearing in my recent posts on the subject! It’s just I guess that I feel I keep saying the same things, but not getting anywhere much – which is possibly because people don’t want to know, though I don’t want to be too cynical. Anyway, in brief, poverty isn’t the only problem in health terms. This is why the work Michael Marmot did is important, because he looked at British civil servants (who weren’t poor) and found a gradient in health related to their income and authority level.

The second point (and I would think quite a few people here would be aware of this since it was widely discussed a few years ago) is that greater inequality seems to make people’s health worse on a population basis (ie including the rich, although they will still be healthier than the poor). There’s more info at the Equality Trust https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk

I guess the OP is written from a political philosophy position, and therefore it is disappointing but not in a sense ‘morally wrong’ that it ignores the work that has been done on inequality and health. I do think though it is in a sense ‘morally wrong’ that people like Chris Bertram ignore the work that feminists have done on patriarchy and hierarchy.


mdc 12.10.15 at 9:09 pm

Rousseau’s thoughts on feminism are interesting, in fact.


LFC 12.10.15 at 9:14 pm

Val @38
Those are interesting/significant factual findings (reported in your first two paragraphs) that I don’t think I was aware of.


Ronan(rf) 12.10.15 at 9:18 pm

Michael Marmots stuff (well, his New book particularly) is eye opening. Val, how accepted are his arguments among researchers . My impression is that there’s a bit of dispute over the claim that inequality specificaly is the mechanism that drives lower health outcomes?


Bcu 12.10.15 at 9:27 pm

I think this essay discounts too much how much the absolute conditions of human life have improved over the last 200~ years. For some people, there is no such thing as too much stuff. But for most, the drive to acquire more, whether to show off, feel superior, or otherwise, invariably fades. For the average citizen of the first world, so much of our lives are so easy compared to the struggles of the past, who cares if some d bag has their own jet? I have enough to eat, I have a flat screen tv. I’m not going to be their slave.


Val 12.10.15 at 9:52 pm

Ronan, which is the new book you are referring to?

Marmot’s ideas are very widely accepted in the public health sphere that I work in, but one should be wary of generalising. Because I came into public health circuitously (via history) I don’t always know exactly what the undergraduate courses are teaching, except for the ones I teach in. I will try to check it out.


engels 12.10.15 at 9:58 pm

there’s a bit of dispute over the claim that inequality specificaly is the mechanism that drives lower health outcomes?

Iirc this was disputed by Deaton, who just won the (fake) Nobel


Ronan(rf) 12.10.15 at 10:01 pm

‘re the new book, it’s called The health gap (I’ve only been reading it on and off in the bookshop) . It’s more aimed at a general reader (which I am) so not sure if it’d be anything new to someone who knows the research well


Geoff Arnold 12.10.15 at 10:04 pm

Despite the vigorous debate that followed its publication, I think The Spirit Level provides a useful compilation of the social consequences of inequality.


Ronan(rf) 12.10.15 at 10:04 pm

Deaton disputed that inequality was the mechanism, or disputed the dispution ?


engels 12.10.15 at 11:02 pm

disputed the dispution ?

What? Iirc (but possibly idnrc) he disputed that greater inequality in a given society causes the average life expectancy to be lower.


Peter T 12.10.15 at 11:15 pm

My understanding is that there are known, quite-well-studied causal factors behind the inequality-health correlation. Which apply across species (Robert Sapolsky pioneered research on this in baboons). It’s to do with stress leading to higher levels of cortisol production. If Deaton disputes this, I’d like to see his reasoning.


engels 12.10.15 at 11:20 pm

To be clear, I don’t think he disputes that poverty/lower status leads to poorer health, just disputes that the average level is lower in a society which is more unequa (but I’m far from knowledgable about it and can’t check now).


John Quiggin 12.10.15 at 11:44 pm

As regards Keynesian policies, I think it’s pretty clear that the successful implementation of Keynesian policies would harm the 1 per cent absolutely as well as relatively. If governments can do a better job of managing the economy than a gigantic financial sector and highly paid CEOs, the pressure to cut finance down to size and equalize incomes (both pre and post tax) is irresistible, as we saw during the Keynesian long boom.

Conversely, even though GDP growth has been weaker since the 1970s than before, CEOs and financiers have done brilliantly.

The big question is why austerity gets support from outside the 1 per cent. I think this really is a case of error or, if you prefer, false consciousness. The rhetoric of belt-tightening sounds convincing and, if it is pushed hard by the supposed experts, it’s unsurprising that people believe it.


Peter T 12.11.15 at 4:38 am

To explain support for austerity (and much else) one has to step back from methodological individualism. People have stakes not just in their incomes, but in the perpetuation of family and group status over time, and are aware at some level that their individual fortunes are closely tied to the maintenance of the social structure. Austerity appeals to the risk-averse, the socially-threatened and those who value social conformism – altogether a much larger group than the 1%.


js. 12.11.15 at 5:17 am

BW @5:

The thing I take from that: total respect for Wu Tang. Just utter fucking genius there.


Andrew 12.11.15 at 12:28 pm

I think the empirical evidence on preferences towards relative vs absolute (in)equality leans towards the relative (I believe it is a study by Khaneman or Thaler). However, I agree with the author that there is likely a tipping point.

It is remarkable that there has been such little dissent from the young who are virtually obliged to attend university, accumulate giant debts, work for free in internships and rent extortionate shared houses into their 30s. By design or accident, we appear to have created a society which distracts the young from such concerns.


Blissex 12.12.15 at 2:45 pm

«The big question is why austerity gets support from outside the 1 per cent. I think this really is a case of error or, if you prefer, false consciousness»

Consider the case of the UK: most voters know that even with moderate degrees of austerity their job is safe, and thus that their main care is how their (usually highly leveraged) property speculation does. In the past 30 years that speculation has returned to South-East voters a profit equal to 50-70% of their wages *every year*, e.g. £10-15,000 a year gross profit for voters on gross incomes of £20,000 to £25,000 . Would non-austerity benefit them as much? Surely not: those voters have given up on trade unions, pensions, labour rights, etc. for the safety of those big yearly profits. And they understand very well that austerity *for everybody else* means lower interest rates and thus bigger property prices. The result is that D Cameron and G Osborne have been campaigning quite openly for “austerity for the poor but not for middle class property rentiers”:

«It is hard to overstate the fundamental importance of low interest rates for an economy as indebted as ours… …and the unthinkable damage that a sharp rise in interest rates would do.
When you’ve got a mountain of private sector debt, built up during the boom… …low interest rates mean indebted businesses and families don’t have to spend every spare pound just paying their interest bills. In this way, low interest rates mean more money to spare to invest for the future.
A sharp rise in interest rates – as has happened in other countries which lost the world’s confidence – would put all this at risk… …with more businesses going bust and more families losing their homes.»
«A credible fiscal plan allows you to have a looser monetary policy than would otherwise be the case. My approach is to be fiscally conservative but monetarily active.»

In other countries nearer the “Greece” level of politics the popular lesson of “keynesian” policy is that it generates instability, as it is usually run in a heavily pro-cyclical way for political reasons, and that it is better to err on the “safe side” and forgo some of the benefits of properly anti-cyclical demand management than to in effect write a blank check for pro-cyclical demand management. It seems that many voters understand better the concept of “inverted” capital structures (as discussed by M Pettis) than many “professional Economists”. That’s why for example “austerity” in the form of Euro membership and its consequences is so popular in Greece itself (BTW, Greece until 2014 had zero austerity, just a climb down from an alarming level of pro-cyclical and fraudulent trade and government deficits).

As to that, poor and middle income greeks have endured many decades of dual-currency regime, in which the rich greeks used dollars and marks, and periodically shafted the poor and middle class greeks by shrinking their wages (and minuscule savings) in dracmas by devaluing the dracma whenever they thought that wages had gotten too high. They are prepared to hang tough for the novel experience of being paid in hard currency instead of whatever their superiors find convenient. In effect they figured out that the dracma was the “company store” scrip and that they were being paid in “company store” vouchers, and of a “company store” run by rich greeks.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.12.15 at 5:39 pm

A relevant discussion of amour propre and inequality


djw 12.12.15 at 10:40 pm

This is a brilliant post, Chris.


Dr. Hilarius 12.12.15 at 10:54 pm

An excellent post with many useful, thought-provoking comments. This is what keeps me coming back to CT.


Pete Mack 12.13.15 at 5:31 pm

Many of these arguments fail to note that Piketty’s argument is in part reductio. Implicit in all this is the assumption that there is some level of wealth inequality that is unjust. The r>g argument, in concert with the limited g of mature economies, guarantees that this level will be reduced. At this point you are just arguing about price, paraphrasing Churchill.


LFC 12.14.15 at 8:53 pm

Pete Mack @60

Many of these arguments

Which arguments are you referring to? The arguments in Chris Bertram’s post, or those in some of the comments, or both?

Implicit in all this

What does the word “this” refer to?

The r>g argument, in concert with the limited g of mature economies, guarantees that this level [of inequality] will be reduced

That’s not the impression I’ve gotten from this symposium so far. (But haven’t read P’s bk.)


mpowell 12.14.15 at 10:18 pm

As long as we are speculating, I can’t peer inside the minds of the Koch’s brothers, but I sincerely doubt that the 1% want to cut social spending because they don’t get enough groveling from the bottom earning quintile. If they are consumed with status games it is at their own level. They probably prefer lower taxes because they want to retire sooner or they don’t see their desires as so zero sum. Housing is only one piece of the puzzle and it’s usually not a big outlay for the 1%. But more vacations? There is not really a shortage of beaches in the world. It is a question of the cost of building/maintaining a hotel and getting there.

It doesn’t really change the policy picture much (Piketty’s thin and conditional concerns are plenty to go on if he his broader trend proves accurate) , but this is a consistent theme with Bertram. Maybe it’s a useful frame for rallying the troops, but I am skeptical.


Tabasco 12.14.15 at 10:53 pm

</em?The big question is why austerity gets support from outside the 1 per cent.

How do we know that it does? What we do know is that many voters outside the 1% vote for austerity parties, but that might be because these parties are also socially conservative or anti-Muslim.

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