THE degree to which people who obsess about "the problem of inequality" are perpetrators or victims of twaddle on steroids is greater than suggested in previous columns. Whether inequality junkies are motivated by ignorance or malice is unclear. Their tsunami of rhetoric might be the greatest contemporary threat to liberty and prosperity. Pope Francis joined a chorus of intellectuals, politicians and talk show hosts when he called inequality "the root of social evil".

Earlier columns argued that inequality junkies are wealth denialists embarrassed by the precipitous decline of objectively defined poverty, and want to pull down "the rich" (excluding themselves) rather than help the poor.

Because they are obsessed with money, they ignore weightier forms of equality, such as consumption, security, freedom, relationships, health and happiness. Additional criteria provide people who really care with much to celebrate.

Economists’ estimates of income inequality reveal less about substantive inequality than most people realise. More spectacular than the fantastic rise of general incomes has been the decline of other forms of inequality. Only the rich tend to have early access to adequate or quality resources and technology, including food, housing, water, telecommunications, energy, transport, entertainment, education, leisure, early retirement, machinery and the like.

Until the 19th century, only the rich had lighting. As recently as 1860, it took an hour of work to buy an hour of light. By 1992, a labour hour bought 8,000 light hours. Instead of shopping for, and enduring the tedium and danger of, candles and oil lamps, most people flick a switch today.

Some declines of real world inequality are especially dramatic. Not only is the rate at which the poor increasingly enjoy healthcare impressive, but the quality of what they get has improved beyond comprehension. Surgery was crude and without anaesthetics, there were no painkillers or antibiotics, and many diseases were incurable. Life expectancy inequality is collapsing as poor countries close the gap on rich ones.

The rich-poor gap closes as the poor in most countries enjoy earlier retirement, safer and more congenial jobs, shorter hours, more leisure, higher pensions, better social and physical infrastructure, welfare, housing and hospitals.

It is hard to find an exception to the rule that, by every objective criterion, inequality is declining.

Dramatic contractions of inequality gaps have occurred in contexts so conspicuous that ignoring them is bizarre. The best information and entertainment had to be live and was available only to the rich. Most people now routinely access the world’s best information and entertainment and up to 100,000 people fill stadiums in every major city.

The rich-poor gap closes as the poor in most countries enjoy earlier retirement, safer and more congenial jobs, shorter hours, more leisure, higher pensions, better social and physical infrastructure, welfare, housing and hospitals.

According to economist Scott Sumner: "Income inequality data is nonsense … (it) doesn’t measure what people think, (namely) consumption."

An individual’s income inequality over a lifetime exceeds average rich-poor inequality, and people without measured income, such as spouses and children, often consume lavishly. The World Health Organisation’s quality of life estimates and happiness estimates show small, usually declining, rich-poor inequality gaps.

The concept of inequality makes sense only contextually. Under what conditions would there be equality between a young, beautiful, intelligent, healthy urbanite who likes meditation, and an old, ugly, sickly, rural person who likes jewellery? According to happiness expert Jonathan Haidt, material wealth contributes little to overall happiness. Lottery winners and rock stars return to earlier, if not lower, happiness levels.

Maybe the authors of the Freedom Charter knew this when they demanded "equal rights and freedoms" instead of income equality. Had the Dalai Lama been allowed into SA, he might have reminded us that the "purpose of life is to seek happiness", which is "a state of mind". Once basic needs are met, "we don't need more money … success or fame".

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