Left-libertarian market anarchist Roderick Long argues that worrying about socioeconomic inequality as such does not count as envy. He gives some examples in support of the position, including a utility that will shut off service to a non-paying customer, while a customer can’t shut off payment to a utility with poor service, and a tenant who has to agree to broad provisions in a rental contract.
Long believes that these sorts of problems are ultimately the result of government intervention, but Bryan Caplan responds that existing markets don’t really work in such an anti-consumer way, and that to the extent that government gets involved currently, they often tilt things away from producers. Long’s response to Caplan is here. I may be the closest thing to a left-libertarian on this blog, but I tend to agree with Caplan that left-libertarians “make mountains of mole-hills, then implausibly blame government for mountain-making.” I recall a conversation I had with a minor landlord in the Boston area a few years ago, and he detailed all the ways in which government makes it possible for someone to live rent-free on his property more or less indefinitely – and there is a certain group of tenants who routinely take advantage.
But let’s assume that Long is right about the way that existing markets work. Are these really problems of inequality of wealth, income, or resources as such? They are presumably problems of market power, not inequality. Long seems to acknowledge this in his response, arguing that land and labor markets are not competitive. If so, the solution would be to make those markets more competitive. Is income inequality related to market power? In a mostly agricultural society, it probably is, because very high inequality would imply that a small number of landowners owned most of the most productive assets of society (think latifundia Latin America).
In 21st century America, inequality generally reflects differences in human capital, which is the most productive asset in our society. Unlike land, human capital cannot be monopolized. If an innovator makes millions with a new invention or business model, I am not materially worse off; indeed, I am very likely better off for it.
I care about market power. I care about poverty. To see inequality as such as morally problematic is to see it as problematic that someone enriches herself without harming anyone else. To favor reducing the resources of the rich, without making anyone else materially better off, is essentially envious. If we’re moral, we should not care about inequality.