Language manipulation is nothing new in politics, but describing economic differences as “economic inequality” is a linguistic act we should reconsider. It not only falsely suggests unique unfairness in economic life, but the notion itself rests on an unfounded assumption.
No aspect of life — economic or otherwise — escapes unfairness. Height, strength, birth place, and natural talents are all determined largely by the luck of the draw. More than that, chance is at least partly responsible for our discovering our talents. While luck first blessed Michael Jordan with basketball prowess, he was twice lucky for deciding to pick up a basketball in the first place (and thrice lucky for being born into an environment that allowed him to do so). Yet, we resist describing the unfairness in our natural height differences or in the talent gap between Michael Jordan and the rest of us as “inequality.”
But the idea of “economic inequality” suffers a more fundamental problem. As the late Peter Bauer noted, the notion itself implies the baseless assumption that, except for some nefarious force distorting the nature of things, individuals are equally economically endowed. Not so.
While we recognize that varying levels of success in other fields is attributable to disparate levels of talent and hard work (which is why we do not regard Michael Jordan as a better basketball player due to “inequality”), we seem to forget this in the economic sphere, where those factors are equally responsible for economic variance. For instance, even assuming a completely level playing field, people vary in ability to perceive and seize economic opportunities. This mere fact alone, Bauer remarked, “is of great significance in explaining economic differences in open societies.”
Neutral language like “economic differences” rids the subtle bias against this explanation that the term “economic inequality” implies. For this reason alone, the language surrounding the issue should be re-evaluated.
While we have every right to discuss American economic conditions and their public policy import, we should do so accurately — for we do not have the right to misuse language.