Monkeys and Inequality


I’m sure by now you’ve all seen this video. It makes regular rounds on Facebook. If you haven’t yet, take a moment to watch it.

The video demonstrates that animals feel a notion of fairness, just as we do. The video is championed by the political Left and used to imply that if you’re not moved by inequality, you’ve lost the moral intuitions shared by our primate cousins. Thus we may rush to conclude that political systems that promote equality of income are just and congruent with nature, and that nature abhors a system of unequal distribution.

Of course the experiment does not set out to prove anything political. There is a disparity between what this research means and what people want it to mean. My goal here is to challenge the political conclusions some people have drawn from this experiment.

In the experiment, the monkeys receive unequal pay for equal tasks. We all agree that this is unfair. But what if we inverted the experiment? What if we pay the monkeys equally for unequal tasks?

Imagine a new experiment: make one monkey carry heavy weights up a ladder. Let the other monkey sleep. Reward them both with a grape. How long do you estimate the first monkey will continue to work when he sees the rewards are equal?

Or try this experiment: make one monkey carry weights up a ladder to earn his grape. Let the other monkey rest. Take half of the grapes from the monkey who earned them and give them to the monkey that did not.

Do these experiments sound more fair than the original? Not to me. Evidently, we can create unfairness two ways: by treating equals unequally, and by treating unequals equally.

In a capitalist economy we seldom pay widely unequal rates for similar labor. To be clear, our society is not unfair in the sense of the original experiment. Typically, wages are uniform across industries and skill levels; they are not distributed in arbitrary highs and lows. Rather, we see income inequality between different qualities of labor. People with advanced skill sets tend to earn more than those with common skill sets. The injustice in our society resembles more closely the the injustice of the experiments proposed above. People are unhappy that different qualities of labor don’t produce equal wages, so they agitate to have wages equalized or redistributed.

Most people can dig a ditch or flip a burger. Being a doctor or CEO requires a degree of skill and investment in education that most people are unwilling or unable to attain. Many people are uncomfortable with the level of risk needed to be an entrepreneur. If we enforce equal pay for unequal labor, we violate the sense of justice we derive from the notion that rewards should be proportional to efforts. Further, we pervert vital market mechanisms: we should allow the supply and demand for different qualities of labor to determine which work is most profitable. Wages rise to attract the kind of labor that is in highest demand, i.e., most profitable. If we do not let the market provide this information we run the risk of creating serious imbalances.

The type of unfairness portrayed the video is a straw man for a capitalist economy. To battle this caricature of capitalism, some people agitate for policies that would inevitably create the second kind of unfairness. I would argue that this idea needs more discussion. In the meantime, I recommend drawing some political conclusions from this well-known monkey study:


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