WHEN the primatologist Frans de Waal wrote in 2010 that “Robin Hood had it right – humanity’s deepest wish is to spread the wealth”, he captured a prevalent mood after the great financial crash of 2008.
This also reflected results emerging from the laboratories of neuroeconomists, which found that humans are egalitarian to a fault. And so our prevailing assumption was that income inequality is a recent aberration: that we are at heart noble, benevolent beings with an altruistic aversion to inequality.
Humans are also gullible to a fault, and we like hearing what we want to hear. More recent research shows there is no such thing as inequality aversion; we actually quite like inequality, even when we lose out (“The inequality delusion: Why we’ve got the wealth gap all wrongs”). What we want is fairness – the harder-to-measure sense that any excess an individual makes stands in fair proportion to what they put in.
These insights should not be misinterpreted as a scientific justification of the status quo. The levels of inequality that people are comfortable with are much less than those seen in the US, UK and elsewhere. There is no doubt that curbing the pay excesses of those at the top can contribute to a greater sense of fairness.
But if equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, is the ultimate goal, only longer-term fixes will do: better education and training and, yes, an increased emphasis on the role of scientific knowledge in a fair society.
This article originally appeared in print in the New Scientist as an editorial under the headline “Fair’s fair” in the 31 march 2018 edition.