The justification for inequality is that wealth compensates one’s contributions to society. Here are some problems:
If everyone worked equally hard there would still be inequality. Different people have different amounts to contribute. The breakthroughs of Albert Einstein are not realistic goals for anyone. The largest contributors express “gifts,” talents which they honor rather than exploit. And so there is inequal potential for compensation, no matter how hard you work.
Rarely, if ever, are the largest contributions inspired by monetary compensation. In fact, top contributors would be insulted by the insinuation. Yvon Chouniard, who did so much to bring social and environmental accountability to the corporation, taught his kids to be “a little embarrassed” by their family’s wealth. Einstein didn’t believe in the use of monetary compensation in general. He said, “I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause. The example of great and pure individuals is the only thing that can lead us to noble thoughts and deeds.”
Sometimes, compensation counteracts the potential of one’s contribution. If Tim Berners-Lee patented the internet, it would’ve been limited, expensive, and lacking in all the innovative and democratic power that has made it as important as it is. He had the foresight to realize an open and unencumbered product was far more important, a thing apart, from personal compensation.
Conversely, there is more money to be made if contributing to society is not your primary goal. You can only make so much by “simple, honest” (I’m sure there’s a better description) wage-earning. But it still needs to be done. America’s financial innovations are often credited for leading it along the path of greatness. But where wealth is “created” by abstract processes, the resources still come from somewhere: from people doing vital work, now making relatively less (due to inflation) than they would have otherwise.
The separation of work, compensation, and contributing to society, and the greater complication and blurring of these relationships, disincentivizes “work.” When you see flagrant, unaccountable, and careless displays of wealth, you see that this trifecta have ceased to inform one another, even taken divergent trajectories. When you work for a CEO who makes an astronomically disproportionate salary you know you are being taken advantage of. When you feel like you don’t have access to the self-perpetuating system of wealth begetting wealth, millionaires begetting millionaires, you start to realize that much of the available work is essentially meaningless. Worse than nothing.