It should come as no surprise that human beings are often more concerned with where they stand relative to others than they are with where they stand overall. It’s a human characteristic to judge ourselves by our neighbors, by our classmates and colleagues, by the living standards of other cities and other countries.
To some degree, this is reasonable. No worker wants to be paid less than his or her coworker for the same work. And there’s much to be learned about our condition by seeing how others live in both Beverly Hills and Botswana. But in the long run, does it really make sense to judge our lives against the lives of others? Should we mark our progress relative to those around us or in terms of absolute progress?
Consider the following example. One representative English study of infant mortality, the Acheson Report, reported deaths per 1,000 in Yorkshire in 1900 that ranged from 247 for the poorest working-class groups to 94 for the wealthiest. That’s a ratio of about 2.5 to 1. Today, a century later, the Acheson Report finds that the ratio remains 2.5 to 1. That’s clearly outrageous. Although 100 years has passed, the poor still die in infancy at a rate more than double that of the rich.
But now consider that, although the ratio remained the same, the top figure had declined for the low-income group from 247 deaths per 1,000 in 1900 to 8.1 per 1,000 in 2000, and from 94 deaths per 1,000 to 3.1 per 1,000 for the wealthy. In other words, for both groups, the rate is now about 30 times lower than it was.
My question is, Why worry about the persistence of inequality in the face of such massive improvement across the entire spectrum? And why worry when, in absolute terms, the improvements are far greater for the least-fortunate classes than for the rich?
Here’s another example. The single best measure of human progress in the United States during the last century has been an improvement in longevity. Life expectancy moved up about 30 years between 1900 and 2000, from about 47 in 1900 to 65 in 1950 to 77 years today—a greater increase (from a higher base, no less) than took place in the entire previous 2,000 years. With that improvement came massive advances in general fitness; today, the average person at the age of 60 is about as healthy as a person at 45 only half a century ago.
These benefits are not confined to the United States. If anything, even more dramatic advances have taken place across the globe. Worldwide life expectancy has increased from 30 in 1900 to 46 in 1950 to about 66 today.
Stunning progress. Of course, if you look at longevity today in relative terms, the picture is a lot more depressing. Terrible inequalities still exist—between racial groups, between income groups, from the First World to the Third World. But it’s also true that people live a lot longer now than they did a century ago.
In the end, which would you prefer? Would you rather die at age 50, as long as everyone else does too, or would you rather live to 70, even if everyone else lives to 80?
At this point, the theory of relative preferences presumes that rational individuals are happy to cut off their noses to spite their faces. To accept this definition of human progress treats equality not as a test of opportunities for advancement but rather as a giant vise that holds everyone back until the least-advanced gain equal life chances. Would anyone really prefer overall infant mortality rates of 94 (the best cohort in 1900) or the current skew of 8.1 to 3.1 that we have today?
The same is true, by the way, for income inequality. Yes, over time the rich get richer. But it does not necessarily follow that the poor get poorer. In fact, over the long run, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten richer as well. Thus it makes no sense to quake with each revelation that the rich have increased their share of wealth. Rather, ask whether this comes at the expense of others or whether it is part of a rising tide that raises all ships.
The threat of skepticism to human progress must be rejected. In its place I would adopt what might be termed a “non-envy principle”: If there are two states of the world, such that everyone in state A is better (or at least as well) off as everyone in state B, then choose world A, even if the resulting inequalities leave some people envious. Don’t grouse because Bill Gates is richer than the average Microsoft employee—instead, celebrate the productive processes that continue to bring substantial benefits to all of us across the board.