Bryan Caplan  

Income, Sex, and Moral Equivalence

Murphy on National Defense as ... Very bad news on housing...
My dear friend Robin Hanson was recently harshly criticized for highlighting the symmetry between income and sex inequality.  Robin:
One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.
One of the better responses is that extreme poverty causes death, while extreme celibacy merely causes unhappiness.  Robin's reply:
Many people are also under the impression that we redistribute income mainly because recipients would die without such redistribution. In rich nations this can account for only a tiny fraction of redistribution.
Robin's right, of course, but let me translate and elaborate on his reply.  When Robin says, "In rich nations this can account for only a tiny fraction of redistribution," he basically means that only a tiny fraction of existing income redistribution is necessary to prevent very poor fellow citizens from dying.  How tiny a fraction?  Well, if redistribution has zero effects on work effort and other poverty-relevant choices, then just add up the cost of raising everyone below subsistence income to subsistence, then divide that sum by total existing redistribution.  And since redistribution has at least some perverse incentive effects (e.g., Social Security leads to lower retirement saving), the necessary fraction is even less than it appears.

If you object, "We shouldn't just meet people's bare survival needs.  They should have enough to live in dignity," you have officially entered Robin's zone of moral equivalence.  No one dies of lack of dignity, after all.  So what is the moral difference between a lifetime diet of beans and rice versus a lifetime of involuntary celibacy?

Unlike Robin, I should add, I'm a big believer in moral blameworthiness.  Whether we're discussing poverty or involuntary celibacy, I think we should always start by investigating whether the sufferer is culpable for his own woes.  And empirically, I think the sufferer usually is highly culpable.  Able-bodied adults in the First World can and should work their way out of poverty, even if the best job they can get is not fun.  And much the same holds for celibacy: Most incels can and should adjust their behavior and attitude to find love, even if the best partner they can get is not thrilling.

At the same time, though, I freely admit that a sizable minority of people suffer blamelessly.  A severe congenital handicap could easily lead to both severe poverty and isolation despite exemplary behavior.  Should government do anything about this?  I don't know, but at minimum we shouldn't add insult to injury by mocking people who fail despite earnest effort.  But is there anyone morally benighted enough to so mock them?  Sure; just scroll through the aforementioned replies to Robin - or see the indiscriminate contempt many people express for incels.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

I'm happy to acknowledge the existence of moral blameworthiness. It quite plausibly should be taken into account in deciding who should help who else how much. I'm reluctant to commit to any particular policy recommendation, that it seems quite reasonable to take this factor into account.

Matthew Moore writes:

Other things that are unevenly distributed, and arguably better placed to convince a redistributionist:

Life expectancy
Quality parenting

robc writes:

I wouldn't worry about any of these inequalities... I understand that by 2081 they will be gone.

Pat writes:

Bryan, if I may use your idea that the left is anti-market, I think the people most offended by Hanson comparing income inequality with dating inequality would not think of the dating market as, well, a market.

I think Arnold Kling's three axes factor in too. People who feel that corporations oppress the poor don't seem to view incels as oppressed. It's much easier to see their failings and poor choices compared to someone who has unfavorable outcomes from the job market due their own failings and poor choices.

Mark Z writes:


Many on the left are happy to apply (albeit, in my opinion, flawed) market-oriented reasoning to 'non-market' situations, such as reproduction: it isn't uncommon for people on the left to support subsidies for people who have children, especially mothers, or mandatory parental leave benefits, even though having children is definitely a choice.

Additionally, many on the left *do* view "incels" as marginalized - if they aren't cis men. The feminist anti-beauty standards movement, for examples, seeks to make the physical standards of male attraction to women a societal problem; men are actually often regarded as blameworthy for their preferences for certain body types in women. Some on the left have argued that discriminatory dating in other respects - refusal to date trans people - is a form of bigotry.

I think people on the left are willing to view "involuntary" celibacy as a form of marginalization, just not when the "sufferer" is a cis-male, because the latter is a member of an oppressor group.

Though to be fair, I think I've seen articles by some unusually open-minded leftists that have expressed sympathy for people whose 'love' lives are essentially inhibited by severe handicaps in the context of why legalized prostitution can be 'socially justified', but I don't think this view is the majority.

Generally, I think it might help to acknowledge that sexual frustration in young men is a fairly natural phenomenon (in earlier times it would've been abated by the fact that most people were married by their 20s) rather than some expression of misogyny. I think most feminists, despite having overly-confident opinions on it, have a rather poor understanding of the male libido.

Michael Sandifer writes:

The simple solution here is to redistribute the wealth and legalize prostitution.

Robert writes:
  • "I don't know, but at minimum we shouldn't add insult to injury by mocking people who fail despite earnest effort. But is there anyone morally benighted enough to so mock them? Sure; just scroll through the aforementioned replies to Robin - or see the indiscriminate contempt many people express for incels."

    A venn diagram of those who claim the name "incel" and those who can't get a sexual relationship is not a circle. And those who cast scorn on the incels (not me) are not necessarily casting scorn on the rest of those who can't get a sexual relationship who don't refer to themselves as incels.

  • Historically those who have been at the bottom in terms of income inequality were the vast majority of folks (you don't talk about quintiles when looking at wealth or income distributions back then, as quintiles, percentiles, and the like seriously distort the picture). Involuntary celibacy has always been a minority.

    Simple wars with one's neighbor was enough to handle the involuntary celibacy problem (in a very barbaric manner), while wealth inequality lead to The Purge-like situations (I have not seen the movies, but know the gist of them) and other forms of revolution.

Or so I opine.

Alex writes:

I used to think more or less like you on this issue but not anymore because I no longer think that people are born blank slate. I see two very big problems in your position:


"I think the sufferer usually is highly culpable"
How do you know this?

And even assuming that this is true, (which I doubt) there is still a big problem:

2) " Able-bodied adults in the First World can and should work their way out of poverty, even if the best job they can get is not fun"
If you have this opinion I bet that you love your job. I also like my job, but some people have horrendous jobs, why should they just accept it and not demand more income redistribution so that they can work less?

john hare writes:


Because many people will define horrendous jobs the same way many people define disability, "anything that allows me to gain (unearned) income." As an employer, I can tell you that showing up on time or actually doing any physical work makes a job horrendous to some, which is why I fire them. I don't blame people for not wanting to work tough jobs, because very few do. I do blame the people that want the state to make it possible for some people to avoid responsibility for their own lives.

If the job is that bad, either it should pay enough to compensate, or the employees should move on to another field. Neither of those options require state intervention or redistribution.

KevinDC writes:

Alex asks:

I also like my job, but some people have horrendous jobs, why should they just accept it and not demand more income redistribution so that they can work less?

My two cents on the issue -

I have definitely hated my past jobs. It's not an exaggeration to say that I would go to bed feeling gloomy and morose over the prospect of having to wake up in the morning and go to work. It was a miserable time for me.

Yet I never, ever would have dreamed of endorsing the idea that because my job was miserable, I should be entitled to have some of other people's wages redistributed to me so I could work less. Why would I "just accept it and not demand more income redistribution so that [I] can work less?" Because improving my life is my responsibility, not yours and not anyone else's. If your work is making you miserable, that doesn't make you entitled to receive a cut of someone else's pay so you can work less. It's up to you to actively improve your situation, which is what I did. Being in a miserable situation is a powerful spur to improve your life. Being financially supported with other people's money as long as your situation is lousy is a soporific rather than a spur.

smosh writes:

Hanson notices something but can't quite put the last few pieces together.

There are so many aspects of human inequality that it always pays to be suspicious about which ones we're encouraged to discuss. Some people are short, some tall; some are fat, some a skinny; some get sex, others don't, etc. There are ways to equalise these things if we allocate enough resources (and violence). But no one is talking about those inequalities.

Instead, the only versions of equality we're openly discussing have to do with increasing consumption. It goes like this: Too few people are getting enough money to buy disposable goods, so the system has to find ways give those people a higher income. One way the system does this is to magically make whatever "inequality" that person possesses a medical/psychological disorder so the government can pay them more cash directly, but in a deniable way. Another way is to be annoyed that too many women and/or minorities are out of work because that means they aren't earning money, which means they aren't increasing their consumption. So guess who gets a government-sanctioned campaign to get higher-paying jobs for the "oppressed" people?

In a consumer society, there is no such thing as oppression. The only question that matters is how much your battery is generating for the system. Consumption doesn't care about your motivations for any social campaign, it only cares that you act in the required direction. This balloon only goes one way, baby, and that's up, up, up, forever.

The "equality" framing is the easiest con to perform. Everyone likes to be thought of as special and everyone feels unspecial some of the time. Even the "INCEL" men are trapped by this long-con. They feel unequal because they aren't having sex with women of a certain value. They have swallowed the line perfectly. INCELS see an ad for a Mercedes with a beautiful blonde draped over the hood and just like the rest of us, see the real message: "this is what a beautiful woman looks like." The ad has nothing to do with the car - THE PRODUCT IS IRRELEVANT. The purpose of the ad is to feed your aspirations and build your expectations SO THAT you will spend your money to achieve them. But there is not enough money in the world to reach any of the expectations depicted in any ad. And that's the trick. This carnival keeps going night and day, and no one ever wins except the barkers and stall-owners behind the curtain.

In a consumer society, everything is a commodity. Everything has value and everything can be sold. There are higher-value things and lesser-value things. There is no such thing and a thing-in-itself. Everything can be sold. And the supply is always carefully controlled by advertising and marketing creating false prices and artificial scarcity. Consumerism turns everyone into a battery. INCELS are not disgruntled parts of the system struggling to break loose, they are the inevitable consequence of a 70-year-long message that "everything is possible, everything is available."

But if everything is possible, why aren't INCELS enjoying everything? Their conclusion, certified by the system, is that must be THEY'S fault. Just like everyone else, the problem is never that INCELS' expectations are at fault. Of course women are seen as objects! Everyone is an object to everyone else. The problem is the society-wide inability to know HOW TO WANT. The only message we receive is what to want.

Notice how this result both conveniently hides consumer culture and creates opportunities to exploit people's feelings of "oppression." But there is no oppression, there are only misaligned expectations.

But don't worry, if these expectations aren't your thing, there's plenty more where they came from. Let me go check in the back...

Hazel Meade writes:

IMO, it's pretty obvious why Hanson was criticized. There's no way to redistribute sex without infringing on the freedom of women to choose their own sex partners. So why even bring it up?

I'm guessing he gets that and was more just discussing the legitimacy of the complaint, rather than seriously proposing to do something about it, but it helps to make things like that explicit sometimes.

As for the incels - why is everyone assuming they are all men? Some men may have multiple sex partners over a lifetime, but they rarely have multiple sex partners at the same time, and probably not at greater rates than women who have multiple boyfriends. In other words, there are "omega" women out there, in all likelihood nearly as many celibate women as there are men, but my bet is that the "incel" men don't want to date them. Their problem, therefore is that their standards are set above their level. They are "2"'s wanting to date "5"'s or better, and being unwilling to settle for another "2".

Which brings up a deeper issue - relationships are not just about sex and the ideal marriage partner is not necessarily the most sexually attractive woman you can get. If these guys thought more about what it takes to make and keep women as friends, they might have a better chance of convincing one of their female friends to look past appearance - because appearance is much less important to women than men. But harping on about about how terrible women are isn't going to make you very many female friends. Maybe some of these men as celibate not solely because of appearance, but because of their rotten attitude towards women.

Ari writes:

How hard is it for people, especially those in humanities, to accept that the human world is Darwininan just like the animal world? It is definitely not fair and it is merciless.

It's just some people living the la-la land who are not losers think its "fair".

Who doesn't mate or mate depends on signalling, eg. conniving skills.

If you ever think mating is fair, then we should analyze it more closely. Like do the people who contribute the most to the society get paired? What's the relevant correllation.


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