Business Day column: Why intellectuals fall for extreme estimate of global inequality

What is it with Leon Louw and his columns trashing estimates of global inequality," asks Roger Southall (Oxfam rant a Louw point, May 3). Having opened thus, Southall forgets his question in a tirade that insults Business Day, its readers and me. The answer lurks beneath his uncritical endorsement and my critical rejection of inequality propaganda. It explains his ideological immunity.

If all you know about an intellectual is that they believe extreme "estimates of global inequality" then you know a great deal about their probable position on many seemingly unrelated issues: gun control, gay rights, welfare, regulation, nuclear, global warming, abortion, death penalty, racism, sexism, hate speech, property rights, smoking and much more. That single fact usually reveals a "left-wing" paradigm.

Conversely, you know nearly nothing about inequality propaganda sceptics because there is no corresponding "right-wing" paradigm. You know only that they are probably pro-market or statisticians. They could be libertarian or authoritarian, and on either or neither side of virtually every issue.

A binary imperative drives us into one of two camps on nearly everything. People on both sides of global warming or abortion, for instance, tend to be convinced they are right and virtuous, whereas adversaries are wrong and evil. Not many informed people say: "Having considered the facts dispassionately, it’s clearly a complex unresolved issue."

Being informed, or pretending to be, is usually the victim of confirmation bias: the dogmatic endorsement of claims that validate you and vilify adversaries. Confirmation bias is so powerful that intellectuals who should know better fall for outlandish claims of the kind made by inequality propagandists.

Southall typifies the phenomenon. He has the intellect to comprehend the "Oxscam" report he says I never read. But for his bias, he would know from my columns that I have a thorough understanding of "Oxscam", Piketty et al.

The terms "left" and "right" are from the 1789 French Revolution, where parties seated on the left wanted to replace the king and church’s power with liberty and equality. The modern left espouses the latter, not the former. Thomas Sowell points out in Intellectuals and Society that all other disparate positions are called "right-wing". One of the few features that distinguish the two sides is that "the left" wants egalitarian outcomes, to which end it wants a controlled society with coercive redistribution regardless of cost.

The right tends to prioritise means not ends, specifically a market mechanism cognisant of cost. Unlike liberals and libertarians, neither espouses liberty. What separates people for and against inequality propaganda is not data but loving or loathing liberty. People for liberty question claims that undermine it.

Besides left and right, what is right and wrong? Ideological immunity can be so overpowering that it conceals spectacular errors. To be objective, we have to fight the confirmation bias in all of us. It is a fact that the poorest 50% have many times more wealth than the richest eight, 100 or 1,000.

Piketty conceals the fact that noncapitalists directly, indirectly and through governments own many times more than rich elites. People who believe propaganda do so because of what they want facts to be rather than what they are. Opponents of inequality propaganda are more interested in lifting the poor than pulling down the rich.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published in Business Day on 10 May 2017

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