Sam Harris Weighs In on Income Inequality

Sam Harris has a question about how conservatives would feel about extreme income inequality:

And there is no reason to think that we have reached the upper bound of wealth inequality, as not every breakthrough in technology creates new jobs. The ultimate labor saving device might be just that—the ultimate labor saving device. Imagine the future Google of robotics or nanotechnology: Its CEO could make Steve Jobs look like a sharecropper, and its products could put tens of millions of people out of work. What would it mean for one person to hold the most valuable patents compatible with the laws of physics and to amass more wealth than everyone else on the Forbes 400 list combined?

How many Republicans who have vowed not to raise taxes on billionaires would want to live in a country with a trillionaire and 30 percent unemployment? If the answer is “none”—and it really must be—then everyone is in favor of “wealth redistribution.” They just haven’t been forced to admit it.

If Peter Thiel has his way, we may, within a couple hundred years or so, find out the answer to an even more interesting version of this question. Thiel is funding the effort to achieve seasteading, which means creating sovereign nations (with libertarian governance) on top of platforms built in international waters. How would the U.S. (and the rest of the world) deal with a situation where a brilliant inventor creates a technology so amazing that he puts millions of people out of work, and make himself incredibly wealthy, and then threatens to become a citizen of a seastead if the U.S. insists on taxing away his money and giving it to the newly unemployed?

Right now, non-libertarians argue that taxes are not “theft” because they are the product of a democratic process which citizens have chosen to take part in (by being citizens). But suppose that it truly becomes feasible to “opt out” (become a seasteader) in a way that it is not currently (now it is not always easy to gain citizenship in other countries, and even if you do, you’ll generally be subject to high taxes there). Would the conventional countries stand for this? Or would they, perhaps through the U.N., declare that seasteads are illegal, i.e. declare that the 200-odd conventional countries have a right, which they’ll uphold by force if necessary, to control the entire world, including all oceans? If they do not, then we’ll have a kind of freedom far beyond that which we currently have – the freedom not just to take part in a democracy (which almost never gets you what you want), but the freedom to decide which country to live in, during a time when countries will actually be able to offer meaningfully different experiences from one another rather than just slight variants on the same theme (at least in the West).

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2 Responses to Sam Harris Weighs In on Income Inequality


    Flip the question how would liberals “feel” if there was true equality. We lived in extremist egalitarian world where no one was smarter, stronger, faster, smarter/dumber everyone was “equal”.

    The year is 2050 and the world population is now 9 billion people.

    Now everyone gets 3 meals a day (of delicious imitation gruel), you wear “rags”, and every week you get a shower. Yeah sounds real good. The problem what happens in six months you would find there was inequality again, oh shit you better press the RESET button again.

    Now lets fast forward 100 years, the families that shit out the most kids are going to better off (since everyones “equal”) and we are now at 100 billion people and now everyone gets 1 meal a day of gruel and can now shower every other week.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Liberals would respond by saying that they are not in favor of *total* wealth redistribution, in the same sense in which conservatives/libertarians are (sometimes) *totally* against wealth redistribution (except to the extent that it is necessary to allow the country to function, i.e. except to the extent that, for example, it includes forcing rich people to pay more for the military than poor people).

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