Update: Based on some of the comments and answers, I feel like I need to clarify something. I wasn't saying that scientists and intellectuals are necessarily the ones making millions of dollars a year (they usually aren't).

My question is more subtle than that: The perceived contradiction is - If we allow for some people's expertise and skill to vastly outweigh those of the rest of the population, then it is also valid to consider that some people's contribution, and therefor compensation, vastly outweighs that of the rest of the population.

Consider the following hypothetical debate (I'm not defending the point of view described, I'm trying to find ways to refute it):

"I think schools should be reopened"
"You're not a doctor"
"My family doctor agrees"
"But he's a family practice MD in Nebraska, Dr. Fauci is a world renowned epidemiologist"
"Dr Fauci only got that reputation because of his privilege and some lucky breaks in his career, he isn't actually smarter than my family doctor"
"That's a stupid argument"
"No it's not, you used an almost identical one last week when you said Jeff Bezos making so much money is immoral".

I feel that there is an underlying perceived contradiction into how some parts of the cultural and political left have been responding to certain issues and debates currently impacting the US.

  • On one hand they argue for the value of established and formally recognized expertise on given topics, the authority that doctors, scientist, university professors from well known institutions (as opposed to lesser known or alternative academic institutions) e.g. "How can a TV star with no political experience or intellectual depth be fit to be president?", "Prof. So-and-So is a recognized world authority on this medical topic, so their opinion on this medical debate matters more than yours!", "Climate Scientists said this and this about Global Warming, so it must be true, and if you believe a TV host or conspiracy theorist who contradicts them you are stupid and immoral", etc...

  • On the other hand, they object to the idea that some people like CEOs of major companies, startup founders, famous athletes and actors, WallStreet traders, etc...deserve the much higher incomes they get compared to the rest of the population. They argue that those people owe their achievements as much to their privileged backgrounds and luck, as they do to their own hard work and the importance of their contributions, and that the resulting income and lifestyle inequalities are unfair and immoral. E.g. "That CEO so and so gets paid 500 times the average employee in his company is immoral. It doesn't matter that he provided the vision and drove the company to success, etc...he owes his position as much to his privileged background and luck as he does to his creative vision and persistence, etc...", "Just because Retailer-X workers didn't study hard in school and don't provide any specific skill related added value doesn't mean that they don't deserve the same job security and benefits that software engineers or lawyers get, etc..."

First, to disclose my own biases, I fall very much in the category of progressive, and agree with the above-mentioned positions. But I can also imagine why a conservative or libertarian would argue something along the lines of:

"If you say a handful of scientists know better than the rest of the entire US population on how to deal with COVID-19, than you cannot object to the fact that CEO of Company-X contributed more than the other 10000 employees of the company to their stellar success and should be paid accordingly".

By the logic of who contributes most to the group and/or society as a whole, if we acknowledge that some individuals contribute significantly more to society (based on their formally recognized expertise and training) to the point that their decisions and opinions override those of 1000s or 10s of 1000s that disagree with them, then how can we object to the idea that their compensations are also disproportionally larger than the rest of population?

The only framework I have found that comes close to addressing this apparent contradiction is John Rawls Second Principle of Justice as Fairness (From the SEP Article):

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:

  • They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
  • They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle). (JF, 42–43)

But even then these two points don't really resolve the contradiction:

  • First of all measuring equality of opportunity in practice seems impossible (and indeed is at the heart of many debates on whether opportunities have been indeed made equal or not). Especially since one can always come up with counterexamples of people from severely underprivileged backgrounds who still made it to the top of the achievement hierarchy against all odds, so if they can do it, so can everyone else.
  • But more importantly, the difference principle can be reinterpreted as justifying this disproportionate income levels and compensations as opposed to arguing against CEO so-and-so created millions of new job opportunities when they invented this new platform and business model, so if anything paying them 5000 times more than the average worker is, if anything, underpaying them, not overpaying them.

I guess what I am saying is that the 2nd principle uses criteria that are so hard to quantify in practice (when do we say opportunity is now equal and that differences in achievement are due solely to individual failings? And how do we determine what the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society is and isn't?) that is can be used to argue for income inequality as much as it can be used to argue against it (Indeed I misinterpreted it as such when I first came across it).

So my questions are:

  • Can Rawl's second principle of Justice as Fairness be made more precise so as to solve the above-mentioned contradiction?
  • Has anyone more recently addressed this contradiction in a way that is more practical than Rawls?
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    I don't agree with the premise there is a contradiction between valuing people's claims by their level of expertise and objecting to large income disparities. I don't think the two situations have much to do with one another. If the issue was about arguing that "experts" should have a higher incomes than regular workers, but not CEO's who provide jobs etc, then I might agree that there was a paradox, because why should we place a monetary value on expertise and not on creating jobs?
    – JonB
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 20:04
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    The paradox is that the incomes of doctors and scientists are not (typically) that high compared to those of CEOs, athletes and celebrities. The underlying objection is presumably not to individuals contributing more to society getting higher incomes, but to the disparity in incomes not reflecting the disparity in the value provided. And this is combined with asserting the contribution of experts while disputing the management's contribution to "success", and/or the link between "success" and managers' efforts in achieving it, as opposed to privileged backgrounds and luck.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 21:45
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    @Tiercelet I think "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" was discredited because it incentivizes people to decrease their own ability and increase their own needs, and people respond to incentives. Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:55
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    If a CEO creates 10 jobs, they've "contributed" 10x as much as the people who do the jobs?! If that's how the math works, then if two CEOs create jobs for each other, they've both contributed an infinite amount. Also, why does "creating 10 jobs" multiply your contibution, but not "saving 10 lives" or "fixing 10 cars" or "teaching 10 children"? Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 19:06
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    In other words, this is only a "paradox" for someone who believes that Fauci deserves to be believed because he is an epidemiologist, rather than someone who believes that he should be believed because his statements are based in sound science. "Are you a doctor?" is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong response to these sorts of claims: it encourages people to search out doctors who agree with their pre-established positions (e.g. reopening schools, hydroxycloroquine, etc), rather than educating themselves using the results of scientific research, and thus arriving at the right conclusion.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 1:02

12 Answers 12


I feel like this question is conflicted on the issue of 'disproportionate' inequalities. To be clear, most academic and scientific experts are paid well, proportionately more than many other workers in society. Few people become conspicuously wealthy as an intellectual expert, but it is a comfortable lifestyle when one achieves it. So the question isn't really about whether a business owner or corporate executive should be paid more than an average worker in the company; the question is whether they should be paid that much more.

Remember, all the vision, drive, and economic acumen in the world will not create a single pair of shoes. To create a pair of shoes, a large number of people have to get their hands dirty: growing, raising, or generating the materials; cutting, shaping, and sizing the product; building, running, and maintaining equipment; etc. Without all those people, a CEO or an owner is just a person with an idea, and 'people with ideas' are a dime a dozen. Sometimes 'people with ideas' deserve the rewards they get — the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world, perhaps — but sometimes the only difference between (say) a Rupert Murdoch and your uncle Fred is that one was born into wealth and privilege, where even his silliest ideas are indulged and cosseted.

George W Bush and Donald Trump each failed miserably in the business world, and each failed upward until they became president; they managed this because their birth into privileged society kept them afloat when anyone else would have drowned under the weight of their own incompetence. The greatest benefit of this institutional system goes to the most advantaged members of society, not the least, contrary to Rawls.

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    No, the CEO and the owner is not "just a guy with an idea". I know several owners of small businesses who became successful, and they worked day and night for it, risking everything they owned. So they don't deserve more for their trouble than someone who works there and after 8 hours goes home and doesn't have to think about the workplace and doesn't risk anything? You provided some outliers as examples, and indeed it's very difficult to become a multibillionaire in a single generation, but many others became relatively wealthy (even if not multibillionaires) who started from nothing.
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 6:49
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    Is it ethical to confiscate the fruits of their labors, to ensure equality of outcome? There were many examples in history of regimes confiscating the wealth of an ethnic group or a social class to buy the support of the rest of the population, and all of them failed miserably.
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 6:50
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    @vsz: How does this challenge my answer? Again, a business owner — no matter how hard working — cannot make the business work all by himself (unless it's a truly small business). I don't see a problem with him getting paid more, but I do see issues on the question of how much more? It's not ethical for anyone to confiscate the fruits of anyone else's labor; that cuts both ways (workers can't do it to owners; owners can't do it to workers) so we are back to what I said above. Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 7:20
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    @vsz how hard they worked for it doesn't change the fact that in principle, anyone could have provided that same value. Nonetheless, indeed someone who risked all they had deserves a return on their investment, that's not what people are arguing against. People are opposing the fact that all the essential links in the chain that enable the CEO to gather their wealth is receiving a far lower part of the proceeds than the essential nature of their contribution would imply to be fair.
    – Cronax
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 8:56
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    @TedWrigley The problem with the labor theory of value is that it cannot determine the value of management. You have no idea what labor went into managing that factory. Maybe some factories have great, self-driven laborers working on simple products against little/no competition who don't need much management. Others might have complicated production chains in a very competitive market, which would require more management. How do you, as an uninvolved observer, decide which is which?
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 16:32

I disagree with the premise that these two views are in some way contradictory or conflicting to hold at the same time.

The alleged discrepancy you're pointing out, when you boil it down to its core, effectively argues that "comparable" and "equatable" are synonymous, which they are not.

Note that this answers mainly focuses on the philosophical/moral position of those who hold the two views you alleged to be conflicting philosophies. At point of arguability/political bias, I've erred towards observations as experienced by people who hold these two views.

I mention this mostly because I personally hold these two views without considering them as conflicting, and I am aware that what I consider to be objective could in fact be a biased observation.

Comparable versus equatable

  • If you can tell if two things are equal or not, then these things are equatable
  • If you can rank things based on their inherent value, then these things are comparable

In order to have comparability, you must have equatability, since you inherently need the ability to distinguish one value from the other. But equatability does not necessitate comparability. Things can be different without that implying a specific order.

For example, a chicken is definitely not the same as a horse. So chickens and horses (which we'll group as "types of animal") are equatable.
But how do you define which is greater in value than the other? There is no inherent and universally "bigger" value here. One is not inherently bigger or better than the other. They're just different. That's all we can observe.

You could argue that chickens are physically smaller than horses, or that they are cheaper to purchase. The size or the cost (or lifespan or amount of legs or ...) of an animal are indeed comparable, but that isn't the same as comparing the animals in and of themselves. In other words, local context can make the equatable comparable, but that does not imply innate comparability of the equatable itself, i.e. on a universal scale.

What I'm trying to get at is that you shouldn't buy a horse if you want eggs and you shouldn't ride your chicken into town. Owning each type of animal has its own discrete benefits and these benefits are not directly comparable.

Salaries are comparable

On the other hand, they object to the idea that some people like CEOs of major companies, startup founders, famous athletes and actors, WallStreet traders, etc...deserve the much higher incomes they get compared to the rest of the population.

Salary is a number, and numbers are both equatable and comparable. Having more money is better than having less money. That's the end of that observation. People with more money can do everything that people with less money can, and then the extra money affords them extra options/freedoms.

In other words, rich people are more than poor people. They are not just different from one another, there is a comparable inequality on top of an equatable inequality.

Justification for that comparable inequality (between a rich and poor person) inherently relies on categorizing people based on some universal value of a life. I suspect you can see how this gets us into a philosophical jungle, as this requires us to define the worth of a human life in a way that not all lives are equal.

Opinions are equatable

On one hand they argue for the value of established and formally recognized expertise on given topics, the authority that doctors, scientist, university professors from all known institutions (as opposed to lesser known or alternative academic institutions) e.g. "How can a TV star with no political experience or intellectual depth be fit to be president?", "Prof. So-and-So is a recognized world authority on this medical topic, so their opinion on this medical debate matters more than yours!"

This is a matter of equatability with local comparability in a given context, but not on a universal scale.

A doctor and a banker are not the same. These people are equatably inequal. But they are not inherently comparable. A doctor is not "better" or "more" than a banker, or vice versa. That doesn't make sense.

What does make sense, is the local context you may find yourself in:

  • If you're sick, the doctor is better at helping you. That doctor's opinion is more relevant when considering medical issues.
  • If you're looking to keep your money safe or get a loan, the banker is better at helping you. That banker's opinion is more relevant when considering financial issues.

But this contextual comparability does not inherently rank the people themselves:

  • That doctor could have bad financial skills
  • That banker could have bad medical skills

One person is not more than the other person. They are different. One of them can be contextually more relevant in a local context, but they are not comparable on the universal scale.

The moral and philosophical implication

Equatability without comparability avoids the ranking of human life, which generally aligns more with the values of biocentrism. You could argue that for the current situation, it's maybe a matter of holding all human life to be equal - I'll leave that distinction as an off-topic discussion.

In biocentrism, all life is held to be of equal value at all times. That doesn't mean that everyone is exactly the same (equatably equal), but rather than everyone is different (equatably inequal) but their value is equal (comparably equal).

When people talk about "equality of life", they mean comparable equality. In other words, they aren't arguing that we must all lead the same life, but rather than each life innately has the same universal value.

Concepts driven by comparable inequality (such as wage gaps) conflict with that moral notion of comparable equality, as it inherently labels the value of human life to be comparably inequal.
If there was no comparable inequality, then concepts driven by comparable inequality would be useless. This closely aligns to the arguments made by those who argue against the wage gap, arguing that it is an outdated concept that should no longer be used (or at least be significantly curbed).

Wage differences are a form of universal comparable inequality, whereas someone's opinion in a particular discussion is, universally speaking, equatably inequal but comparably equal.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 11:06
  • @Flater- finely nuanced and clearly expressed distinctions. You moved around the perimeter of the question with great agility. Thank You,
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 3:06

Let me set Rawls to one side and bring Marx on stage. It may be a mistake to translate the complex, abstract idea of "equality" into the monetized value measurements of a modern economy. Even Marx recognized that is was silly to suppose socialism meant no more hierarchies or expertise or status systems, some sort of social flattening.

Equality is a very interesting idea, some sort of moral basis upon which rational beings can converse or "reason together." Hobbes noted that we are "equal" insofar as any human has the potential to kill another, whether by power or guile. The fact that there is no perfectly dominant "penalty kick" against the goalie, no matter how much you practice, because you are up against another reciprocally adaptive consciousness illustrates the point.

For Marxists, inequality of status or reward is not a problem of distribution. It resides in the historical relations of "labor" and "ownership." All value come into being through "labor" but "ownership" is a random social convention. This is harder to see today. An ordinary worker may own some share of the "means of production" via his pension, while the fabulously paid CEO may belong to the class of "labor," if his lifestyle depends on his salary and the continued necessity of earning it.

The unjust "inequality" lies between how the vast majority must in some sense "work" to live and those who may or may not choose to work, but by virtue of social convention and law "own" a share of social production, such that their "money makes money." They could do nothing or even wreck businesses and their share would still grow.

This economic situation has nothing to do with the nature of "expertise." Though we should distinguish the "professions" and their systems of certifying authority, from the CEO who may just be lucky or connected. (Many studies have shown there is very little relation between individual CEO decisions and corporate success.)

It seems plain that the distribution of sustenance and value can be easily disconnected from expertise or the input value of labor (it already, radically, is). The ideological illusion is that expertise resides in the individual alone, when clearly it derives from massive inputs of labor, from the mother to the teacher to the producers of the "expert's" tools and texts. There is no way to carve it up neatly into "deserving" individuals.

Rawls' difference principle is similar to the famous Marxist "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs." This seems "unfair" to us, but this is only because of our ideological blinders that see the individual "expert" in separation from all the labor that made him/her an "expert."

Besides, in the end the recognition of "expertise" or "greatness" is insufficiently compensated by mere money. Who would accept a big check to renounce their own inventions or deeds? Needs can be fulfilled first among "equal " rational beings. Recognition is the true reward most people seek, recognition not for the money but for true human contributive value.

  • 5
    I would be very interested to see any material about the correlation or lack thereof between CEO decisions and company performance. I didn't find anything very relevant in a couple minutes of searching.
    – nasch
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 15:41
  • 5
    Or CEO pay and quality of decisions. Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 15:42
  • 1
    Nice to read you again @Nelson Alexander - it's been what? 4 years? Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:33
  • 2
    @nasch not exactly what you asked, but: cooleypubco.com/2016/07/25/…
    – llama
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:40
  • 2
    @nasch Leonard Mlodinow wrote a book called The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives that, if I remember correctly, touches on the lack of correlation of executive pay to actual results. We tend to often fool ourselves that the difference in performance after a change is because of that change, when instead it's the same random variation as always. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 18:27

1. It was never "your" income to begin with

There is a key idea one should realize before going any further: there is no such thing as "your" income (unless you have earned it on an inhabited island, or in a lawless jungle, relying on yourself and no one else).

When you are earning money within a societal framework, leveraging on its laws and the others following them, you cannot claim the sole ownership of your earnings. It has to be shared with society. In practice, it means that society decides what part of your income you can keep for yourself.

Otherwise, you are basically saying that you live in a lawless jungle for the purpose of earning income, but for the purpose of keeping it and spending it, you want your property rights respected and everyone following rules. Obviously you cannot have it both ways.

2. Your expertise and skills, however superior, have no intrinsic value

The argument is that one's earnings prove that one's "expertise and skill vastly outweigh those of the rest of the population".

This, of course, is not true either. For starters, it depends on the rules adopted by a particular society. It also depends -- as we have witnessed in the last 50 years -- on technological progress. The original "Wall Street" movie opens with Bud Fox riding the subway to work. A bit later into the movie, his older coworker gets laid off with no savings to show for his career as a Wall Street broker.

This is capitalism (the income inequality trend, specifically) before and after computer tech got commercialized in the 1970s:

the income inequality trend over the past 100 years

    ... looks pretty self-explanatory, isn't it?

And that is even before asking whether being so lucky (as to end up with marketable skills) makes you a better human being?

UPDATE to address comments on the chart above and how I interpret it -- it is obvious that something unprecedented happened around year 1970. It dramatically changed the nature of capitalism -- before 1970 it was benefiting everyone, having created a vast middle class (high school diploma and job at car factory = your own house, two cars, most households were single-income... in 1980s you could make, with overtime, 80k/year).

After 1970s the inequality trend breaks up, and stays that way -- until the economy, after 50 years, simply could not take it anymore... it would have collapsed by now, but was saved at the last moment (by the corona virus, what else lol):

The economy chart of Doom

The chart above show's the economy starved for cash because guess what -- billionaires can't possibly spend all the truckloads they make.

And no, it's not just the States, it's everywhere:

enter image description here

The truth is that a half a century ago witnessed how a powerful technological shock literally turned the world economies upside down (with respect too the way markets were distributing the wealth they were creating).

It happened right before our eyes, but we managed to stay calm, and for the next 50 years we heroically withstood any pressure to do something about it.

(to he fair, we did something big -- we fooled a whole generation of young Americans to make them go in the college. Those who didn't, were stigmatised as losers. A half those who took a shot at post-secondary dropped out (because it's hard even if you actually like it). That bunch was saddled with debt, on top being stigmatised as losers.

Of those who managed to graduate, most could not land the lucrative job they were promised, because guess what -- the economy doesn't create a position simply because you got your degree. So they ended up with tons of debt, and of course the... well they actually were the biggest losers, and got stigmatised for no fault of their own -- as the rest of their generation, save for the few percent first at the finish line or they were born rich).

  • 3
    (1) is a good point. The concept of "owning" something is a concept we made up. We made it up because it seems to work better than competing notions, like the idea that you can just take anything whether or not you obtained that thing through trade. But at the end of the day, absolutist notions of ownership don't work very well either, leading quickly to the libertarian notion that wealth redistribution is inherently immoral, which is absurd (see my answer). Thus it must be recognized that the right to own property is an invented right, as opposed to a natural right. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 2:34
  • 1
    @goblin Indeed, the libertarian faction likes to pretend that their notion of ownership is somehow natural. Why is it natural? Because (they believe) it results in the best outcome. Why does it result in the best outcome? Because taking away natural rights is a bad outcome... ad infinitum Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 9:49
  • 3
    I feel obligated to point out that the graph neglects some key events and is not self explanatory. 1929 started the Great Depression (and stock market crashed destroying wealth). The peak right after drops after worker unions saw a rise in 1936. The inequality.org site covers those in more detail.
    – IT Alex
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 13:04
  • 1
    The green starts a bit higher than it probably should. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 16:39
  • 1
    I feel like the tax cuts for the rich, of the 80s and onward, were really much more of a factor than a switch in which skills were marketable. Is this plot showing only the US, by the way? Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 19:15

(From a utilitarian perspective.)

There's a tradeoff here that arguably Rawls perspective doesn't fully recognize. It all comes down to the diminishing marginal utility of wealth.

On the one hand, the existence of inequality is necessary because most people are motivated by incentives and selfish goals. If it weren't for inequality, there'd be no selfish reason to create value, and thus (almost) no value would be created. Thus from a utilitarian perspective, you can't argue persuasively in favor of policies that completely eliminate all forms of inequality, because people respond to incentives, and the existence of inequality is necessary for the existence of incentives, which are largely necessary for the creation of value.

On the other hand, we should remember what Alfred Marshall writes in his Principles of Economics (1890)

The additional benefit a person derives from a given increase of his stock of a thing diminishes with every increase in the stock that he already has

For example: the more houses you have, the less buying another house helps you. The more luxury cars you have, the less buying another luxury car helps you. The more helicopters you have, the less buying another helicopter helps you. Indeed, the more wealth you have, the less you are aided by accumulating further wealth.

This means that you can't persuasively argue against a total elimination of wealth and/or income redistribution; aggregate well-being is necessarily maximized by allowing a degree of redistribution.


One important aspect is that people do not get rich because of hard work, people get rich because they take risks in business. Jeff Bezos is not extremely rich because he has worked hard. He is rich because he has taken several risks that has payed very well off.

That is not to say that knowing what risks to take or not is a skill, and as such can be valued. But it is also worth noting that not all risk that might give monetary benefits for the risk taker is beneficial for society as a whole (e.g. missing safety efforts, pollution and other the tragedy of commons like problems) so it is not like the society should reward risk taking indiscriminately.

While being a CEO of a company like Amazon involves a lot of risk taking, being a doctor or scientist on the other hand is comparably very low risk. Dr. Fauci is not a world renowned epidemiologist because he has taken risks. Dr. Fauci is a world renowned epidemiologist because of the work he has produced.

Therefore comparing Dr. Fauci and Jeff Bezos is very much comparing apples and oranges, while comparing Dr. Fauci and a family doctor is more like comparing apples.

So I disagree with JonB's comment "If the issue was about arguing that "experts" should have a higher incomes than regular workers, but not CEO's who provide jobs etc, then I might agree that there was a paradox, because why should we place a monetary value on expertise and not on creating jobs?". I do not see it as a paradox to argue for limiting the reward of risk taking as a practical measure (of course ideally you would want to only limit bad risk and reward good risks).

So I consider CEO wealth (from risk) to be quite fundamentally different from wealth acquired by famous athletes, actors, doctors and scientists (by their own work). This still leaves unanswered how to justify income inequality for those compared to average or least-advantaged members.

  • 3
    Jeff Bezos wasn't taking a risk though. Losing the initial investment would have been a minor inconvenience, because the family was rich before that already and could afford to invest more after the business didn't take off as fast as expected. Rewarding that kind of "risk taking" basically rewards having money as opposed to rewarding hard work. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 8:12
  • It's an artificial risk, still, in a way. We could design a system where toilet cisterns were full of booby traps, but that wouldn't justify paying janitors more - rather, that would justify getting rid of the booby traps. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 16:40
  • Hard work and risk-taking are not mutually exclusive. Starting Amazon was a risk, making it succeed took hard work. It would have failed if Bezos just delegated everything to lackeys he put no effort into vetting. They would've walked off with the money or blundered it all away. Even professional gamblers put in hard work. It takes a lot of practice to know when to bet and when to fold while playing cards.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 18:04
  • I feel there is something missing here. For every Jeff Bezos in the world there are 1000´s of "Jon Does´s" who worked just as hard and took just as many risks but failed, so their story is never told.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 7:43
  • "For every driver who finished the course successfully in the world there are drivers who also turned the wheel left and right, and even pressed the gas pedal as hard but crashed for some reason."
    – Ark-kun
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 9:44

Something to think about is the distribution of the inequality matters. If you took the entire human population and graphed physical traits like height, weight, strength, you would see a normal distribution, or to simplify a bit, a bell curve with most people within 1 standard deviation of the mean and very very few people on the edges.

This gets a bit trickier with non-physical attributes like intelligence since we don't have a perfect method of measuring intelligence but we can proxy with things like IQ scores. In a controlled environment the IQ scores of a population will again form a bell curve with the majority of the population within 1 standard deviation of the mean, very few people with high IQs, and very few with low IQs.

Sample normal distribution

If we accept that most human traits follow this pattern (not necessarily true but seems to follow the evidence), and that wealth is based on having exemplary skills it would be natural to assume that wealth should follow the same distribution. However that is not the case, wealth follows a very heavily skewed distribution (in the USA):

enter image description here

To answer your question invoking Rawls is a false dichotomy. You can believe that experts in academic fields are significantly smarter than the average person and that CEO's should be significantly more successful than the average person. But if you compare the distributions you would see how skewed the wealth distribution is.

Assuming the average family's wealth is $692,100 from cnbc with a standard deviation of $300,000 a person with $2,000,000 net worth is 4 standard deviations removed! That is equivalent to an IQ > 160 assuming the average is 100 with a std dev of 15. Jeff Bezos is worth over $100 billion dollars. He would be hundreds of std deviations away. Anyone with a background in statistics will tell you this is incredibly improbable. Disclaimer: this all works with the assumption that human skills are all normally distributed and your wealth is directly tied to these skills which would also be normally distributed. This assumption may not be true in the real world, but it is an interesting calculation to give some foundation to how we compare wealth.

  • 2
    Comparing income would be more relevant than wealth. Also, the graph for wealth could use a source.
    – eclipz905
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 21:40
  • 1
    Additionally, anyone with any background would tell you that being Jeff Bezos with a net worth of over $100B is incredibly rare (improbable). And that assumes that the relationship between skills and income is/should be linear, otherwise the second graph has little hope of being a normal distribution. As with anything there are diminishing returns as income increases. A giant leap in price(income) correlates to only a marginal increase in skill. For non-income related example, look at high end CPUs or cars or anything else high-end. Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 23:39
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    @user5728491 Why don't people increase their skill slightly to get the giant leap in income? Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 9:52
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    A good example of this is professional athletics. Choose baseball as an example for concreteness. How much better are major league pitchers than minor league pitchers on average? Not much. However, that slight increase in skill that gets one from the minors to the majors is incredibly difficult to attain. Once one is at the peak of their potential, which one might argue is true for CEOs, professional athletes, successful businessmen, etc, gaining that edge over another highly skilled/talented individual is immensely challenging or even impossible in some cases. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 22:29
  • >" If you took the entire human population and graphed physical traits like height, weight, strength, you would see a normal distribution" - This is mathematically and practically incorrect. You only get normal distribution for group sums/averages, not for single samples.
    – Ark-kun
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 9:55

By the logic of who contributes most to the group and/or society as a whole, if we acknowledge that some individuals contributes significantly more to society (based on their formally recognized expertise and training) to the point that their decisions and opinions override those of 1000s or 10s of 1000s that disagree with them, then how can we object to the idea that their compensations are also disproportionally larger than the rest of population?

The idea of "contribution" seems to rely on counterfactual evaluations: one imagines a world where that person didn't exist, and compares it to the actual world. But there are several problems with that. First, the sum of contributions will generally be significantly, maybe even several times, the total value. For instance, suppose Alice goes in for an operation. Bob puts her under anesthesia, Cindy performs surgery, and Dan assists her. Each of their roles were crucial to the surgery. As a result of the surgery, Alice's quality of life goes up $100,000. Each of their contributions, as defined above, is $100,000. On top of that, they would never had had the opportunity to provide $100,000 of value if Alice hadn't existed, so arguably Alice also had a "contribution" of $100,000. That's $400,000 total contribution for $100,000 of value. We can't pay all of them $100,000.

This appears to be what Obama was getting at with his poorly phrased "you didn't build that" claim. Achievements can't be cleanly attributed to a single person. They exist in wider context. If the world with smart phones is $100b better than the world without them, that doesn't mean that Steve Jobs deserves $100b. It's a nontrivial question what the "fair" distribution of that $100b is.

Another issue is: just what would the world look without them? We often just imagine a world that's exactly like the current one, except with them removed. But the changes would be wider than that. We should not be comparing the world with this person to the world with no one in their position, we should be comparing the world with this person to the world with their replacement.

This is different from your expertise situation: when deciding whether to listen to Fauci, we're comparing what will result from listening him to what will result from listening to the family doctor. We're deciding what the best thing in the actual world is, not how much better the actual world is than a counterfactual world.

Suppose you're on a game show, and you have a team of five people. Your team is offered $10,000 if you can put a bunch of tiles in a particular pattern. The tiles are secured in such a way that it will take several hours to free them, and a mile away, the pattern you're supposed to make is on a wall on a building. You decide that four people will stay and free the tiles, and one person will study the instructions, and come back. After there's they come back, there's a disagreement about how to proceed. The person who studied the instructions say that what they say should be given more weight. Is their position valid? If it is valid, do they deserve a greater portion of the prize money, since their advice is more valuable?

The analogy here is that Fauci studied a lot of things that your local doctor probably hasn't, and so Fauci's advice on those things is probably more valuable. But he did so because our society is built on division of labor. Someone needs to study infectious diseases, but we also need people to be local doctors. They are both filling necessary roles. It is the fact that other people have local medicine covered that allows people like Fauci to specialize in epidemiology, just as it's the fact that other people are getting the tiles that allows the one person time to go look at the instructions.

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    Don't forget the people who cleaned the operating theater beforehand. These people also had a significant contribution since they are taking workload off the other specialists, and they are probably faster due to experience, so they can clean the room twice as fast, but nobody is arguing that they should be paid twice as much as the doctor. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 7:57
  • @SimonRichter The difference in that scenario is the value in the depths of the skill required. Properly cleaning a room requires much less depth despite being valuable since just about anyone can properly do it, the value of the work is cheapened. Although, it could be argued that someone who properly cleans operating theater's should be paid more than someone cleaning gas station toilets because of the need of increased accuracy thus increased pay.
    – IT Alex
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 12:52
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    @ITAlex Depths of skill, sure, but it's also a case of using money to make money. I hear medical school is very expensive. In an ideally designed society, we would all recognize that having trained doctors is extremely important, and we would all chip in for their education (via taxes), and in exchange, we would probably not have to pay them as much (because they don't have huge loans to pay off). Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 16:38
  • @ALexM In standard English grammar, a pronoun refers to the previous noun. The noun that precedes "that" is "business". Therefore, according to standard English grammar, Obama said "If you have a business, you didn't build that business." Apparently, he intended "that" to refer to all the stuff before that. Thus, reading the quote "correctly" requires disregarding what he actually said and going out of one's way to find a more favorable message that he "meant" to say. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 21:47
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    One theme permeates this conversation and it basically muddles all of the issues and makes it difficult to make clear comparisons and to weigh the merits of them carefully. This is the human proclivity to use 'generalizations' . Spinoza recognized that people can only accurately 'picture' no more than handful of individual objects. Once it's more than a dozen or so; years, people, objects, stars, or anything else, the distinctions blur and essentially render our observations meaningless. This may sound harsh but is true. 'Escaping the generalization' is a life long challenge! Cheers,
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 17:59

Edit: I think this is a good answer, but not to OPs original question Haha. I went off on a bit of a tangent. Mea culpa. I will look at revising it tomorrow morning.

A. We as a society do better if we as individuals are rewarded for our efforts, because, well we're are more motivated that way. (n.b., Money is only one form of reward)

B. We as a society are generally better off if each individual is able to but their particular skills to best use (and get rewarded for their efforts)

C. We as a society do better if we listen the advice of those who are skilled, knowledgeable, and wise in how to apply that knowledge.

D. Generally it is easer to earn more money, the more you have. So someone with equal skills and equal effort will not get equally recognized or rewarded. There are many reasons for this. Some key ones are:

  1. There are some minimum (relatively) fixed costs required to just survive (food, shelter, basic education)
  2. Once you have a comfortable buffer you can take more risks with your spare wealth, higher risk ventures generally have higher rewards
  3. Moving in higher socioeconomic circles, gives more higher paying opportunities

E. We as a society do better when as many people as possible have the opportunity to make the most of their talents (e.g., An intelligent student who has to take a low paying job to help pay for their parents needed medication, is not able to study as hard and only gets a B grade, so loses our on being able to give their greatest value to the economy and society.)

F. We as a society do better where, for as many of its members as possible, bad luck is only an inconvenience, not a tragedy. (e.g., a parents of a child with a randomly occuring disease that is not caused by poor choices, (say type 1 diabetes) can afford medication to prevent an early death) It costs a lot more to get out of a financial pothole than the money lost going into it, and one is a lot less productive as one tries.

G. We as a society do better if the wealthier members don't disproportionately hoard or waste money. (e.g., buying a excessive large house, with large land to match, driving a expensive gas guzzling car means the wealthy person is wasting their time having to drive further every day spending more on fuel etc. The money could be put to better use by investing in in new business, or by paying their staff better (so bad luck etc is less harmful, etc etc), or supporting social causes (e.g., eradicating polio)

H. The wealthy members of society ultimately do better if the rest of society does better (they may get a smaller slice of a much bigger (wealthier, and happier) pie.

I. Too greater wealth inequality increases the risk of a revolution. (Revolutions may correct some social and economic in-balances, but can come at a huge opportunity costs)

J. Humans are emotive social beings. Sometimes we let those emotive and social needs take us and our actions too far. But also sometimes not far enough.

These points, are in the general case, true (as far as I know) Although sometimes contradictory, are not mutually exclusive. They exist in an equilibrium. Our social-political-economic system meshes these and other factors together.

However the current state of the system (in the US for example) has let the equilibrium point sit somewhere which is (IMHO) not optimal (rich and poor, famous and ordinary alike). Look at objective measures like Health, happyness (for rich and poor), economic growth, opportunity to become a billionaire, be better off than your parents generation etc, are higher in many countries which are more (it's a spectrum) Social-democratic (Not to be confused with communism!), than the US.

Just to be clear, I am not saying those countries are perfectly optimal or better in all areas. But in some areas they are, but also have ways still to improve.

As a side note a GP may be just as smart as a particular epidemiologist. However they both have different experience and knowledge. One may be better at a wide range of medical issues and patent care. The other at infections diseases and how they spread. Both equally smart but one is more likely going to give better advice on how to stop an infectious disease from spreading.

Just because someone is rich doesn't make them right. Just because some is popular doesn't make them wrong. And vice versa


An answer in response to the question's update.

You are asking about an apparent contradiction in these two statements:

  • We should listen to advice of "top experts" much more than others.
  • It is unfair or unjust that "top earners" make so much more money than others.

I think the analogy you have in mind may be:

  • It is unfair or unjust that the "top experts" get listened to so much more than others.

The fairness and justice question here has to do with what a person gets and how much they get, compared to everyone else. So you may be picturing "listening" as an act of rewarding someone for their expertise with status and the privilege of giving advice.

But as an advice-taker, I don't care that much about awarding status at all (except insofar as it incentivizes expertise).

I'm much more selfish than that. I want to listen to advice that leads to good outcomes for me and my society, regardless of whether the advice-giver is made happy or sad by my listening to it. If every time I listened to Facui, he lost a dollar and a little Martian popped out of nowhere to bop him on the head (lightly), I would still advocate listening to him. Unfair to him, good for me.

This is just one aspect of the question, exaggerated to make a point, and there are a lot of things going on here. But I hope this illustrates one of them.


One critical point that has not been made and that is essential to understanding why these two ideas are not comparable is that financial advantages are far more transferable. What this means is that a measurable degree of wealth built by one individual almost always results in a significantly larger income by their descendants. If there is $1 billion in the trust when mom dies, the trustees (children) now have $1 billion. If dad was the top football player in the league, the kids don't become football stars automatically. They may have a genetic advantage, better access to coaching and facilities, but they can't inherit stardom the way they can inherit mom's billion.

This is key because individuals who start with more money can much more easily increase their wealth and income with minimal effort than other individuals in the same society. With $1 billion, the individual doesn't have to know anything about money to have more income and wealth than nearly everyone else. They can simply use a portion of that money to hire a money management team that will allow them to be wealthy perpetually. If they work as hard as mom did to build that billion, their own children could easily have 10 billion when they pass.

The kid that decides to be a football star like dad can work as hard as possible and probably still not be the top player in the league. Even with a genetic advantage and all the right training, coaching and connections, it isn't really possible for this child to become 10 times better than dad. A ten fold increase is simply not realistic in athletics, but it is very realistic in terms of finances. This child will probably be more likely to build on dad's fortune than on his athletic career.

As a practical example, consider the family of Sam Walton. He grew up as a farmer, later got into retail management and eventually established Walmart and was considered the richest man in the US. He was poor as a child, but left an immense fortune to his family. His children did not start as farmers the way he did. They took over a thriving family business and are now worth more than 10x what dad was in aggregate, even in adjusted figures. This creates a much larger gap in income and wealth in the US as the Walton family and others like them continue to build upon the wealth of previous generations. The Waltons don't have to be the richest family in the US to still be vastly more wealthy than the rest of the nation. In addition, their wealth relative to the average has increased significantly from where they started.

Children of athletes or scientists who are considered the best in their field can never hope to be better than best in their field. They also have to work much harder just to rise to the same level as their parent, instead of starting from where their parent left off. For this reason the wealth and income disparity will continue to increase.


These debates about inequality are often spurious arguments to justify horrific levels of gross inequality we face today. But income and wealth inequality are important measures of the health of a society, if we value social justice and human rights. Marx was right when he pointed out that inequality is the consequence of capitalism, an economic system which produces gross levels of disparity. We don't have to look hard to see that gross economic disparity in the US, where 3 men own more than 160 million Americans, to realize the fact that individual wealth and power is concentrated in the corporate class. As wealth becomes increasingly concentrated so does power.

But the issue is whether or not gross inequality is justifiable. Today, the wealthy, ruling corporate class, like their privileged brethren the aristocracy of yesteryear they overthrew, attempt to justify gross inequality on several grounds. They usually point to the old standby argument that it comes down to "talent". As others have already pointed out, we are products of our environment as much as anything else. Moreover, the term itself is so ambiguous that it can mean just about anything.

When the "talent" argument falls flat next in line is the argument directed at the character, which usually takes the form of a stereotyped ad hominem attack on the less fortunate, that the poor are responsible for their own poverty, as a result of their laziness or poor choices in life. "If only those lazy sobs would get off their duff", so goes the argument. This was popularized in the series of American novels by Horacio Alger, who peddled the myth of the rages to riches story, where hard work was all it takes to "make it". All you need to be is industrious! If that were anything remotely true, then every African woman or fast food employee in the Western world would be a millionaire. After all, they work hardest and are paid least. As Marx puts it:

"Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole ..."
Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production

Finally, when it's discovered that the wealthy don't lift a finger, the apologists of gross inequality trot out the latest argument: the wealthy are job creators! And to add insult to injury, they label labourers as "job takers". But that's not how capitalism works. Capitalism is about maximizing ROI, not jobs. In fact, jobs are a cost to production, and every capitalist tries to reduce the cost of production and hence jobs in as many ways as possible, constantly. The old adage that "what is good for GM is good for the country" was debunked decades ago. But if this is about creating jobs, then Joe Stalin and Mao must be the greatest job creators ever, producing billions of jobs.

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    'Inequality is not a consequence of capitalism, it is a consequence of the variabilty in the level of desire for self-sustenance in human nature. Marx and his immediate followers set up the Supreme Soviet with a secret police state to be certain to control the proletariat and to keep them in their place. Lenin insisted on that and Putin does the same today. The result, enforced inequality. The same that some members here accuse capitalism of enforcing. Vive le difference!
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 3:18
  • Emotions have nothing to do with inequality. Your own words prove it. Btw, Marx had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or its followers. You're referencing two different generations.
    – user48488
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 17:13
  • Desire is not an emotion in the 'secondary' qualities way to which you refer. It marks the nature of human behavior Yes, I knew I was referring to two generations. Just wanted to be sure to connect the inherent weakness in Marxian theory with its total failure in real world application.
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 21:03
  • No offense intended. Welcome to the SEP! Regards,
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 2:47
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    "socialist countries like those in Scandinavian" Nonsense. To quote the Danish PM: I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.
    – user76284
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 20:46

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