With the turn of the century, humanity has been left to reflect on the consequences of the preceding 100 years. The colossally abhorrent regimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin leaves us with many questions about the nature of the world. Why do bad things happen? Will this happen again? Is there anything transcendent to such evil men? As science grows and the traditional ways of religion fall into the background, we wonder: what is the meaning of all of this? Why is a life worth living if such terrible and evil things happen? How do we find meaning in this world? People look for meaning in many different misguided places, one of which is income equality.
The problem of meaning in the modern world is a problem many philosophers have analyzed ruthlessly. The “why” of everything plagues existentialist thinkers to this day. The words of Nietzsche still ring in our ears: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” So what the hell are we going to do about it? As doubts about the transcendent take hold, humans look for other avenues to fill their hearts. As a result, they put their faith in politicians. The machinery of the state is powerful, so people flock to it to make ends meet. Progressives have a specific end in mind: equality.
Meaning in Equality
One looks at Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and asks “how is their wealth justifiable if some are left dirt poor?” Surely, these powerful men are living lives full of fulfillment and meaning. Thus, the key to living a good life must be having enough money to fulfill your desires. This belief is embraced by many, and as a result, politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are placed in office. These near-socialist politicians become the new saviors in the mythos of progressivism.
Yet politicians are people. They are imperfect and we cannot put our full faith in them. Surely, they will let us down. And even if they do follow through with the goal of creating income inequality, the void within man’s heart will still be there. Having money doesn’t mean having meaning. As Harry G. Frankfurt explained in On Inequality, “the amount of money available to various others has nothing directly to do with what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself.”
Sure, money is a good thing. But money cannot make you whole. Furthermore, no gift from a politician can ever make you whole. Money can make life easier, though. And if someone is worse off than us, we should work to help them. That can add meaning to our own lives. But we shouldn’t see equality of outcome as a meaningful aim, because it isn’t. The egalitarian doctrine of equality is fraught with logical fallacies and unintended consequences. And even if income equality is a reasonable goal, achieving it will not fill a man.
Other Avenues for Meaning
Rather than striving towards mere equality of dollars per year in our bank account, we should look for meaning in other places. Even if you feel like you don’t have enough money and the world is doing you a disservice, simple income equality will not fix that. To truly find what it means to live a meaningful life, we should instead look at what men do in the direst circumstances. Namely, we should look at the concentration camp.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist living in Austria during the Nazi invasion. He was placed in three concentration camps over the course of his life. In a concentration camp, the conditions are abysmal. Life has no quality. The eternal question of “why keep on going” grips tighter than ever before. But Frankl did not let his conditions rule his spirit. Within Man’s Search for Meaning, he shows how he kept himself grounded and was able to make his life worth living when in absolute worst circumstances. While there, Frankl meditates on the words of Dostoevsky:
“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom— which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
Frankl’s essential thesis is that no matter what chains bind you, you are the sole curator of your attitude and path of action in any given situation. This means that it is your choice to make meaningful choices. If a Jewish psychiatrist could do it from the bottom of a concentration camp, you can do it from the cushy monotony of lower-middle-class America. In Auschwitz, Frankl has nothing. Death lurks around every corner. There is no income. Yet he filled his life with meaning and made it worth living. It is up to every individual to do this, regardless of their circumstances.
Finally, the doctrine of income equality forecloses the possibility of finding meaning in one of the most pernicious ways. At the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus explains that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” The path is there for you to follow. You just have to choose to embrace the suffering that stands before you. If a politician fills your bank account, the struggle that makes that money worth anything meaningful disappears. A paycheck that you worked hard for has far more value for your life than any gift a politician could bestow.