This will be a bit controversial topic and I was considering if I should write about this at all. I will try to limit giving out my point of view and instead to ask some important questions, but I probably won’t escape offending some people. Please treat this just as an intellectual exploration, an exercise of sorts, and come with me on a journey towards a new frontier.
First of all, lets think for a moment about current state of affairs concerning wealth inequality. I understand that it’s only a proxy for the general inequality problem, but as the starting point it’s a good approximation.
How did we even get to the current state off affairs? In the beginning of the 20th century the world saw a dissolution of old power structures that were based on birth rights. Especially in Europe the shift was very visible. For many ages a small number of aristocratic families divided the land between themselves. The hereditary rights were the most important factor that decided of life-long wealth. The Habsburgs, Bourbons, Tudors, etc., shaped the border lines of countries and gave rise to the haves and have not’s.
In general we can say that there were four states to which a person could belong - peasants, priests, merchants and aristocracy.
If you were born a peasant, even if you were a genius, there was pretty much zero chance to hold real power.
Aristocracy and priests built their wealth by making claims to ownership of things - land and human souls. Those “rights” seem like a silly things now, but at the time everybody treated them very seriously. The division of states can be traced at least to ancient Rome and was very deeply rooted in collective consciousness. It was a castle build on sand, but as long as an average person believed in the status quo, it was the law.
If you think this is ridiculous, stop for a moment and think about our financial systems and how banks hold the power to create money. Looks familiar? Our society is a common consensus on a set of things. The importance of that cannot be overstated when considering the last state - merchants.
At the time, those were the people that were considered dispossessed - they held no land and they had no connection to god. Being a merchant was often considered a “dirty” job. You know, almost like a natural scientist. Merchants were often of Jewish descent and occasionally an aristocrat would incite a pogrom to shift the blame for some major failure in governance. What’s particularly interesting is the fact, that the power of those people was backed by goods and services which they offered. Wealth was strongly correlated to their own abilities. It’s a concept that we take for granted now, but at the time almost no one would acknowledged that it was the right way to go.
To summarize - in the old status quo, your individual value was very low. Your family ties determined your future and your abilities were not a good predictor of success. Everyone accepted that unanimously. When the power of the old families started to wane, it gave place for new structures to emerge.
Capitalism - that’s the word for today. The promise of being able to move freely along the status line in accordance to ones own merit. Was this promise fulfilled? To a degree. If we take a look at the Gini index, which explains how much of wealth is hereditary in a particular country, we can see that in western civilization in general there is still a lot of power that “sticks” to offspring. This can be a huge boost if your parents were capable, or a terrible liability if they were faring particularly bad. Power or wealth can be split into different components - assets, area of birth, mental models, genes, etc. Some of the “debt” that our parents made can be paid off later in life by our own actions, but no matter how much you try, you can’t erase almost 20 years of growing up in a bad neighborhood. Is the current situation bad then? Also only to a degree.
Most people cannot imagine a situation in which they can’t pass anything to their own children. For some this is the main motivation in trying to provide any beneficial services to society. What’s more important, is the question why do we even assume, that there should be some equality among people? It seems like a peculiar idea, but it’s very strongly rooted. Try to say loudly that you think people should not be equal and you will soon find yourself being shouted at from all directions. Why is that?
I think most of this aversion is due to a bizarre form of cowardice. Paradoxically, this particular thing is also what makes our lives bearable. I call it the “Pratchett Effect” and it’s basically a projection of our internal value system to the outside world. Since I want to be treated fairly, I will project that the world works according to some rule called justice (it does not). I want to believe that I can achieve anything that any other person has, so I will project that there are no limits to what can I do (there are). I don’t want to die, but I’m convinced that I cannot escape it, so I will project that death is something that one should not fight (it’s hard to imagine a thing more worth fighting against). We could go on like this. Some of you might call it a cynical view of the world, but please understand that I do not despise this mechanism. Quite the contrary - I love it. If you try to remove this component from humanity, our society would probably crumble in a matter of days. That being said, we should not rely on wishful thinking to asses our current situation and the future. Inequality is an inherent trait of life, there are a lot of hard limits that cannot be abolished and it’s going to get even worse.
Why is that? As feudal and aristocratic systems morphed into capitalism more and more importance was put on the ability of an individual. We got used to the thought that if we work hard or have good ideas we can radically transform our lives. This situation gave life to a new kind of myth - shoeshiner-to-billionaire. A lot of the stories we are fed by motivational speakers, coaches and the sort are a variation of this myth. “If I work hard enough everything is possible”. In the mean time we still have social classes in modern society, wealth distribution lines can be traced more than 100 years into the past and currently we are experiencing a rise of a new servant class from the lower echelons of society.
But it’s OK, right? There are some people that really make it. They achieve the dream, ascend toward the billionhood. Well, not quite. First of all, it does not impact in any way that inequality is here to stay. Second - the group of people that traverse the ladder is not that large. Third - those that succeed, get a leverage over the rest of the society that works like compound interest. There is no way you can compete in a “free market” with Jeff Bezos. He can copy any product or service that you provide and offer it cheaper thanks to the scale effect. He associated himself during those years with pretty powerful people. If things turn for worse he can always try to bend the rules a little to win the competition. What are you going to do, sue him? Lets assume you make a titanic effort and actually manage to pull it off. You are now an equal of Bill Gates and Elon Musk. How many other people can do this? Once your advantage is set in place, there is pretty much only one thing that can remove you from such a position. Death.
Now we get to the main point. We are getting near to times in which it will be possible to stop aging. Maybe you will not live to see it, but your children definitely will. Those of us who have reached the top tier of society will not only stay there, they will keep increasing the difference in wealth. Even if you work as a top manager in Amazon, Mr. Bezos will earn more than you. Lets assume that you work very hard and earn 30 million $ per year. How soon will you catch up to the owner of majority of stock? The answer is of course - never. The distance will become only larger.
If there is something boiling inside you when you think about this, then you are not alone. We ask ourselves: how we can allow this to proceed? Isn’t the world a just and equal place? Well, here is the problem - it’s not and it will never be. Even a small deviation in abilities will cause a huge difference when we take into account a potentially infinite time span. If we discount the possibility of accidents, life extension programs will cause an inequality on the scale we have never seen. Some might propose a program in which people would be produced with the same gene pool and raised in similar conditions, but putting aside moral objections and assuming it was feasible, it would only reduce the variance and not eliminate it completely.
It may well be possible that A. Huxley was right on the spot when he predicted stratification of human beings. Right now we can see that there are about 3-4 classes of people and they are at least to some degree hereditary. Once we eliminate aging they will be more or less set in stone.
A while ago people unanimously believed that division of states is the only possible way in which the society can work. At some point the collective consciousness acknowledged that individualism and human rights are the way to go. The longer I look, the more it seems that we are going to experience another shift soon. It will be accepted sooner or later, only it probably won’t be a simple comeback of the old class based status.
Right now we are putting a lot of effort to automate menial jobs which would eliminate the need for the lowest class to exist at all. If you are an AI-skeptic and ask yourself if this is possible, then maybe you should change the time perspective. Is this possible in 10 years. Probably not In 100 years? I’m pretty sure that it is. In 1000 years? I think it would be hard to find someone who would say it’s not.
Now we end with two issues. First, there is a lot of dispossessed people that can not contribute anything meaningful to the society. Second, the automation probably won’t stop at just the lowest class (or it might not even start at this particular class). In 10000 years there will be not that much people that will be able to influence the world. Most of us might be left behind. Surprisingly, I can’t really convince myself there is anything inherently wrong with that. It only seems to flash red when I try to cling to the established idea of equality. I can’t also think of a way in which it can be avoided. Will the billionaires of today be our future gods?
If there is someone that is slightly better at playing the life game than you, then he will overtake you in the long run. Taking into account an infinite time span, a small difference in skill is something that eliminates you completely. Are you really the best of the best? Is there no one who can beat you to the final prize? Maybe the billionaires of today will be the only people alive.