Whenever the discussion comes to the topic of wealth inequality, some people are quick to pull out statistics showing the overall increase in average wealth and well-being over the past 100 years. “Here”, they suggest, “over time, things have been getting better and better for billions, so why do you complain?! Is it a problem that for some, the gains have been bigger than for others?” I am quite tired of this line of argumentation. Because it disregards human nature.
How often do you catch yourself thinking how glad you are that your life is so much better and comfortable than your grandmother’s or grandfather’s life? You might occasionally express this in words, but how often do you truly feel that way? Now, how often do you catch yourself envying the wealth (or the things bought with that wealth) of another person? Maybe someone you know personally, or a public figure.
I think you see my point: Historical improvements to global wealth and average life-quality matter for statistics, but they don’t matter for what people feel. People don’t compare themselves with previous generations and keep praising their ability to watch TV and drink Coca Cola. People compare themselves to other people of their times. And THAT is why a rise inequality and the tension that follows has to be considered a threat to societies.
Should people be more thankful for what they have today in comparison to what their ancestors had in regards to quality of life? Some might think so, and pointing to statistics is their way to make their case. Factually and morally, that seems to be the most accurate perspective. But that’s just not how humans work. They feel short moments of thankfulness for what they have and enduring periods of dissatisfaction about what they don’t have.
That’s why there is no point in trying to argue inequality away with pointing out how much better things have become for the majority of people. This is like telling people they should stop downloading pirated content from the Internet. Yes, maybe they should. But if they won’t, it does not matter how much you think they are morally obliged to do so. You still have a problem.