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?