There are different ways of looking at the issue of human inequality. The modern Left obsesses about inequality as measured in dollars of income. But if one measures inequality based on quality-of-life, it quickly becomes clear that we have achieved great progress toward equality on the things that really count. Much of that progress is at risk of reversal from imposition of the green dream.
By the time I was born in the late twentieth century, comforts that had begun in the exclusive domain of the very wealthy had long since become widely available to most hard working people. I’m thinking of things like cars and personal travel, but also small scale conveniences like in-home washers, dryers and dishwashers. All of these things, of course, were brought to us by the widespread access and affordability of electricity and fossil fuels.
But even as the baseline human experience improved, the Left has continued to campaign on the moral abomination that is persistent “income inequality.” This is “inequality” as measured by dollars of income and ability to buy super luxuries. The rich don’t just travel, they travel via yacht and private jet. And the cities where wealth accumulates, like New York and San Francisco, are, according to their own voters, the worst offenders. Former New York Mayor de Blasio campaigned, and won, on the theme of a “Tale of Two Cities,” the “inequality that increasingly divided New York along the fault lines of fabulous wealth and grinding poverty.” Guilty New Yorkers fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
It is true that New York is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. But it is also true that the poorest people in the city still have widespread access to decent housing with heat, plumbing, food, and transportation — things that were out of reach to most poor Americans in the 19th or even well into the 20th century. They also have widespread access to electricity, and as a result many have televisions, telephones, and modern healthcare – things that did not even exist until the 20th century.
Throughout history, “poverty” once meant something very different from what it means in America today, and the difference in quality of life between the rich and the poor was stark. Being poor often meant living in one room shacks with inadequate access to food, while being rich meant living in mansions staffed with servants to attend to one’s every need. That’s what “income inequality” once meant, and that’s what income inequality still means in many parts of the developing world. Quality of life in America only started to change dramatically after the industrial revolution and the introduction of widespread electricity and fossil fuels. And the number one thing that keeps the developing world under-developed is its limited access to those two things.
But the same politicians and voters who don’t seem to have noticed how much better the human condition has been in America in the 21st century also haven’t realized how much worse it will be if they achieve their goal of eliminating human use of fossil fuels. In fact, the dream of ending “inequality” directly conflicts with the dream of ending reliance on fossil fuels.
Laws that restrict or aim to eradicate the use of fossil fuels take direct aim at the quality of life for America’s middle and lower classes — that forgotten group existing between “fabulous wealth” and "grinding poverty.” Laws that restrict fossil fuel usage will automatically raise the cost of electricity, meaning people will have to pay more for the same level of use or immediately start cutting back. The first people to make cutbacks will be those who live on the tightest budgets, the types who will notice if their annual heating bill suddenly goes up by $500 or even $1000. This is the average American, not the 1%, and it’s already becoming a reality in Europe: a friend recently confessed to me that her extended family in Italy had moved from two apartments into one for the winter because collectively they could only afford to heat one apartment. My friend thought that was a reasonable sacrifice to make to protect the climate. Might communal housing soon become an economic necessity for many?
Here are just a few things that we currently take for granted that will quickly become difficult to afford as fossil fuels get restricted: heat and air-conditioning, driving for leisure or for any purpose outside of commuting for work, taking family vacations. If electricity becomes exorbitantly expensive, people will be forced to cut back on lighting their homes and using their appliances. Then there are even bigger questions that have yet to be addressed: how will we farm without fossil fuels? How will we run a hospital and provide life-saving care without reliable electricity? Who can say what that will do to our access to food and healthcare.
But the bottom line is: When the eggs go up to $10, the middle class notices, but the wealthy won’t. When gas goes from $2.95 to $4.05, the middle class notices, but the wealthy won’t. The lower, middle, and upper-middle classes will be making cut backs for a while before any of the rich have to do the same.
It’s amazing how quickly we could find ourselves living in a world where the vast majority of people have become poorer, in the sense of struggling to meet their basic living standard, while only a few elites have access to the things we currently take for granted. We see that already in the celebrity poster-children for climate change, e.g. Leonardo DiCaprio, who continues to fly private and summer on a yacht in the Mediterranean, unaffected by the rising costs of fuel. This is not an outlandish claim or an impossibility, rather it would simply be returning to a meaning of “inequality” we had successfully left in the past.
The beauty of our freedom-based economic order has been closing that quality of life gap between the rich and the poor, but all the progress we’ve made to lift the living standard for ordinary people could be undone with the wave of a politician’s pen. And when that day comes, the Bill de Blasios and Bernie Sanders of the world won’t be responsible for solving inequality, they’ll be responsible for creating it.