Is income inequality unjust, and if so, where is the injustice?

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#1
So thinking about the wage gap, which is obviously bad for society, I started wondering if it was unjust. Surely it must be, I supposed, but then that leads one to wonder where the injustice occurs? This leads to thoughts about whether success is therefore unjust as well, or, in fact if capitalism is inherently unjust.

Note that I'm using the common (simple) definition of "unjust" as "not based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair." We all differ on what might be considered "fair" or "morally right", but as long as we acknowledge that then it seems like we could have an interesting discussion on this topic.
 
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#2
So thinking about the wage gap, which is obviously bad for society, I started wondering if it was unjust. Surely it must be, I supposed, but then that leads one to wonder where the injustice occurs? This leads to thoughts about whether success is therefore unjust as well, or, in fact if capitalism is inherently unjust.

Note that I'm using the common (simple) definition of "unjust" as "not based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair." We all differ on what might be considered "fair" or "morally right", but as long as we acknowledge that then it seems like we could have an interesting discussion on this topic.
Not inherently, but inducing it through intentional or unintentional action might be. Actions, not situations, should be considered unjust. Obviously the problem that inspires the debate is what actions might lead to such injustice and how to avoid committing it.
 
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#5
So thinking about the wage gap, which is obviously bad for society, I started wondering if it was unjust. Surely it must be, I supposed, but then that leads one to wonder where the injustice occurs?
If there was no wage gap, and the earnings of all were more or less the same, then how in today's society would one encourage hard work, good performance, and achievement? What rewards could be offered to those whose efforts prove to be of benefit, and what penalties could be imposed on the free-riders?

Unless there is a convincing solution to this problem, I tend to consider the alternative to be a significantly greater injustice than what we currently have. Yes, I'm well aware that not every rich person has gained their wealth on their own merits, and not every poor person is poor due to being good-for-nothing, but without material benefits and penalties how would society at large encourage desirable behaviour and hard work, while disincentivising undesirable behavious? If everything provides the same material comfort, why take the time and effort to actually do something with one's life?
 
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#6
If ... the earnings of all were more or less the same...
Perhaps, but that doesn't provide insight into why the wage gap is or isn't unjust. Unless you are attempting to claim that the gap, as currently exists in our society, is just, and is the result of a desirable attempt to encourage productive workers?
 
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#8
but without material benefits and penalties how would society at large encourage desirable behaviour and hard work, while disincentivising undesirable behavious?
Believe it or not, people are not so singularly motivated. Motivation is complex and cannot be distilled easily to a purely reinforcement paradigm, no matter how much Skinner insisted it to be true. Most economists are Skinnerians at heart. Since Skinner was wrong, so are his proteges.
 
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#10
You can say not most people are like that, but unless we get education costs under control, there is going to be people who will earn more because they put more investment into the ability to do so. Again, this does not take into account people who earn their money from playing the market, or other such things viewed as income, but the fact of the matter is that the income gap is something that exists because a skill gap exists.
 
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#11
Perhaps, but that doesn't provide insight into why the wage gap is or isn't unjust. Unless you are attempting to claim that the gap, as currently exists in our society, is just, and is the result of a desirable attempt to encourage productive workers?
The wage gap as a concept, a disparity on what forms of material wealth can be acquired by which individuals. As long as there is a positive correlation in the amount of effort put into an endeavour, and the benefits accrued thereof, I believe there exists an argument as to why the wage gap, itself one form of reward, can not be considered as inherently unjust.
Believe it or not, people are not so singularly motivated. Motivation is complex and cannot be distilled easily to a purely reinforcement paradigm, no matter how much Skinner insisted it to be true. Most economists are Skinnerians at heart. Since Skinner was wrong, so are his proteges.
I certainly believe it; a simple glance at the history of management theories will offer a convincing argument as to why human motivation is not simply a question of material benefits. But is it truly the case that material benefits are not a significant factor in the human psyche, or that the differences in the things that motivate humans render the income gap unjust?
 
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#12
The wage gap as a concept, a disparity on what forms of material wealth can be acquired by which individuals. As long as there is a positive correlation in the amount of effort put into an endeavour, and the benefits accrued thereof, I believe there exists an argument as to why the wage gap, itself one form of reward, can not be considered as inherently unjust.

I certainly believe it; a simple glance at the history of management theories will offer a convincing argument as to why human motivation is not simply a question of material benefits. But is it truly the case that material benefits are not a significant factor in the human psyche, or that the differences in the things that motivate humans render the income gap unjust?
They are likely a significant factor, but not necessarily due to reinforcement contingencies. Evolutionary psychologists might point out, for example, that women, but not men, are more likely to emphasize material security in selecting a mate, which places an evolutionary (and social) pressure on men to acquire and show off their wealth to enhance mating probabilities. This suggests a biological (read: not a reinforcement contingency) disparity in the reasons that material wealth is both acquired and displayed between genders, as well as the wealthy and the poor and the married and the single and the young and the old. The bottom line is that even if rewards do matter, they don't matter in a universal fashion, and they may not even matter because of the contingency, which is important to the economist's line of thought.
 
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#13
They are likely a significant factor, but not necessarily due to reinforcement contingencies. Evolutionary psychologists might point out, for example, that women, but not men, are more likely to emphasize material security in selecting a mate, which places an evolutionary (and social) pressure on men to acquire and show off their wealth to enhance mating probabilities. This suggests a biological (read: not a reinforcement contingency) disparity in the reasons that material wealth is both acquired and displayed between genders, as well as the wealthy and the poor and the married and the single and the young and the old. The bottom line is that even if rewards do matter, they don't matter in a universal fashion, and they may not even matter because of the contingency, which is important to the economist's line of thought.
Mmm. So it's an ingrained biological instinct amongst a certain subset of the population to acquire and display wealth as a sign of material security in order to enhance mating prospects?

Taking that to be true, if material wealth matters less to some than to others, how do you find it renders the income gap unjust?
 
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#14
Mmm. So it's an ingrained biological instinct amongst a certain subset of the population to acquire and display wealth as a sign of material security in order to enhance mating prospects?

Taking that to be true, if material wealth matters less to some than to others, how do you find it renders the income gap unjust?
I don't find any mechanism inherently unjust. Unjust to me revolves around the actions that one or more people take that harm the actions of others. Someone who acquires wealth to the point that it harms another group of people (that is in no way their enemy) are the ones who are unjust in their actions. Recognizing mechanisms is useful towards education and policymaking.
 
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#15
I think the injustice comes in with the collusion. The rich and powerful work together to prevent the lessers from achieving the same success, usually by placing artificial barriers to progress (the inflated importance of college degrees and their ever rising price, influencing politicians to keep minimum wage beneath a living wage, dismantling the attempts of workers to organize, etc.). It doesn't help that they've skewed the legal system in their favor. By preventing the lessers from being able to take advantage of the same opportunities they had, they ensure that wealth and power remains in their hands. Effort and talent can occasionally make up for short comings, but no amount of effort or talent can equal having powerful friends and connections that will assist you.

To put it simply, income inequality is unjust because it is enforced by an unjust system that is run by those who do not wish the poor to have the same success as the rich. The Haves would rather have workers than competitors and thus they have made it so.
 
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#16
I find this discussion to be, almost always, far too black-and-white. We get presented with the choice: either everyone earns the same, or some people are free to earn whatever the hell they want. That's obvious rubbish, really.

Is it "just" to give everyone the exact same amount of money/income, no matter what they have, do or need? Even most modern day communists will agree that it's not.
Is it "just" to have worthy, intelligent people who have worked hard all their lives but were somehow hit by fate/bad luck/karma/whatever starve in the streets while useless nobodies can live in opulence and decadence because their father was smart? Even the most neoliberal conservative American ought to agree that (while they may think this is the best way to order society) it isn't particularly "just"'.

TommiR hinted at what makes people feel it is "just" to have income inequality: a positive correlation between effort and return. Ashburner pointed out the problem with our current system: the haves can and do work together to stay in the "have" group, keeping the havenots down.

There have been many different points of view on this. The French idea - limit the income of everyone to maximum 20x what the lowest-paid employee in a company earns - seems to me to be fairly just....But it can, of course, be easily avoided (nobody says management and direction have to be officially employed by the same company as the mailroom clerk). The idea's been offered to just limit all wages to 20x minimum wage. Another idea I've heard proposed is to limit inheritance: limiting any possible inheritance to 10 years' worth of income, with the rest being redistributed, could work as a way to limit the amount of people able to live without earning their own way. Both of these are practically impossible to put into proactice on a national scale (in Europe) - they'd have to be put into action across the EU or better yet worldwide to be at all effective.
An option that's gaining more and more traction with the left in Europe is to replace unemplyment benefits/welfare with a "'basic income" awarded to everyone over 18. No matter what your income, no matter what your job (or none) - you get X per month - in this set-up, this should be enough to live off of ("comfortably" or not depends on who you ask). It simplifies many things - student support, housewife support, disabilities support, retirement funding, unemployment,.... can all be roled into one. Any wages you earn would be in addition to your basic income, and would provide the 'extras'. Of course, taxes would have to be adjusted for this to work, and it'd be an enormos undertaking. I'm not at all convinced it's possible or desirable, but...Yeah.
 
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#17
I don't think income inequality is intrinsically unfair. I do think it is unfair in the way it is set up now.
In my mind, for income inequality to be as just as possible, income should be very strongly correlated with a combination of effort and skill (I do not know in which proportion). As it stands now, I think it depends too much on your starting point and on some things that can depend on effort/skills but often don't, such as connections. I also think that some skills are related to a disproportionate improvement in income, that some bad decisions can be a disproportionately large drawback and that in general the correlation between effort/skills and income is too strong (i.e. a small change in skill means a big change in income) in some cases and too low in others.

Also, if we are talking about inequality in general, I think it is wrong that any person is without the bare minimum of food and shelter, and dignity (what is this bare minimum is hard to know). I think almost no bad decision or concatenation of bad decisions are bad enough to deserve such a big penalty. Therefore, I think that if any inequality is to be just, its spectrum should never go below this bare minimum.
 
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#18
An option that's gaining more and more traction with the left in Europe is to replace unemplyment benefits/welfare with a "'basic income" awarded to everyone over 18. No matter what your income, no matter what your job (or none) - you get X per month - in this set-up, this should be enough to live off of ("comfortably" or not depends on who you ask). It simplifies many things - student support, housewife support, disabilities support, retirement funding, unemployment,.... can all be roled into one. Any wages you earn would be in addition to your basic income, and would provide the 'extras'. Of course, taxes would have to be adjusted for this to work, and it'd be an enormos undertaking. I'm not at all convinced it's possible or desirable, but...Yeah.
The only way this can work is if the governments of the EU were to standardize the price of goods, services and property to prevent people from taking advantage of the now flush market. It's the same problem the raising minimum has in the US: there is nothing to stop companies from raising the price of goods to make up for the lost income, bringing everyone back to square one. Even then, you'd have to forgive a shitload of debts to even make this work. It would basically be like calling a do over on society and that's not going to happen until we reach a post-scarcity state.
 
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#19
Depending on how you do it many companies stand to lose nothing from it: obviously, if you have this Basic Universal Income coming from the government, you won't have a minimum wage anymore and companies can pay a lot less. The other side of this coin is that workers do not need to accept very low paying jobs either.

In any case, it is a very interesting and socially challenging idea, but it would need many economical and social changes to work.
 
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#22
Life is inherently unjust.
Interesting. I suspect that life is, overall and on average just, however it my be unjust on an individual scale, or depending on one's perspective. It rains on the rich and the poor equally, but only a few in each group might be able to take advantage of the rain to improve their situation. The majority probably don't care. And another few in each group will be hurt by the rain.
 
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#23
(I started a big post on this yesterday, but then accidentally refreshed the page and lost it. I had a sad.)

To directly answer the question posed in the OP, income inequality (the "wage gap") is most certainly unjust. The harm caused by this tilting of the playing field is a thing which is not in dispute, and anyone who claims otherwise is either not paying attention, or is deliberately choosing to ignore it. Every wealthy businessperson, every effective government, and even every lottery winner might think their success is due to their own actions, but in reality they each owe their respective successes to the collective efforts of others. They may have done A Thing, but it was the efforts of others which added value to That Thing. The sole proprietorship is pretty much the only exception. An injustice occurs when the person(s) reaping the most benefit fail to adequately compensate the ones doing the majority of the work. And yes, I realize that "adequately compensate" is open to some debate. I've already said quite a bit over in another thread about much the same issue (especially as regards the gulf between the "mean" and "median" wages), and I still stand by the dozens of sentences I spewed there.

There is a second kind of "wage gap" that I think deserves more attention, and that is the gap between a person's wages and their basic living expenses. It is a matter of simple arithmetic to show* that the amount of income in the personal sector in toto is sufficent to meet (and exceed!) all a person's basic needs (and I am including such things as a vehicle for transportation, a computer and some form of decent Internet access, etc) for every US citizen, and yet this is far from the reality. This is a very telling thing, and what it tells is that our society places a high value on selfishness. I don't for one minute count myself as a Socialist, as I don't believe the Government should own the means of production (it should instead concern itself with managing those things that nobody wants to be bothered with but which have to get done), but I do feel that the people to whom the system has been so very kind need to exhibit a bit more concern about whether the system is going to survive. As I state in that other thread:
I know it may be obvious to some people, but a healthy economy isn't one where everyone has a lot, a healthy economy is one where everyone does a lot of commerce. It's this flow of wealth that is important, and when it slows/stops, everyone suffers.
In other words, the economy would be much healthier, and people a lot happier, if instead of having 10 people spend a billion dollars each, we had 10 million people spending $1000 each. If the roots don't get sufficient food and water, the tree will die, no matter how much air and sunshine you give the leaves.

--Patrick
*In the US, at least. I realize I'm being Americentric, it's my area of focus.
 
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GasBandit

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#24
Interesting. I suspect that life is, overall and on average just, however it my be unjust on an individual scale, or depending on one's perspective. It rains on the rich and the poor equally, but only a few in each group might be able to take advantage of the rain to improve their situation. The majority probably don't care. And another few in each group will be hurt by the rain.
The rain is not the sole random hardship of life, though I know you were using it as a metaphor. I, in turn, was more just responding to Charlie's predictable monosyllabic anticapitalist contribution. But an individual basis is the only true basis for determining what is just.

Wealth doesn't figure into it. Merit doesn't figure into it. Cancer, lightning strikes and car accidents happen to the virtuous as much as the villainous, and to some people that sounds like fairness "on average," but taken one person at a time in a subjective reference, there is not a day that passes without a worthy person suffering an ill that they did not deserve nor can they absorb. The injustice is on an individual basis, not a systemic one - and thus the efforts to address them must be similar. The only thing socialism can do to to alleviate the unjust is to inflict the misery upon all to the highest common denominator.

Someone will always be hurt. Someone will always be killed. Someone will always be poorer than someone else. The "leveling of the playing field" cliche is often perverted into meaning that the contest must be perverted until it guarantees everyone crossing the finish line in a tie. This is not accomplished by making a slow runner faster, but rather hobbling the quick. It stems from a belief that the only path to success is through inflicting injustice - that there must have been some unfair advantage, or some wrong committed, something stolen, someone elbowed aside, to get that fatcat capitalist to the feeding trough first, so the answer is to inflict injustice upon them to restore some kind of alleged balance. It's a sick viewpoint rooted in envy and sloth that means that the "level playing field" is only achieved once everyone is dug down to bedrock, playing ball in a deep, dark hole. The only possible fairness is the complete, total, universal, and therefor equal, application of utter and abject misery and pain. True equality will only be attained upon heat death.
 
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#25
An option that's gaining more and more traction with the left in Europe is to replace unemplyment benefits/welfare with a "'basic income" awarded to everyone over 18. No matter what your income, no matter what your job (or none) - you get X per month - in this set-up, this should be enough to live off of ("comfortably" or not depends on who you ask).
The bad part of this as I see it is that the distribution seems inefficient. It spreads the burden around to everyone through taxation, gives a part of the monies to people who do not need it (the rich), while depriving the people who do need it (the poor) of that much more.

I'll put up a better reply tomorrow, when I'm less tired and more sober.
True equality will only be attained upon heat death.
When you are a rotting corpse, it doesn't really matter how opulent your tomb is.

Until they figure out a way to escape death and price it accordingly. Then rich people will continue to accumulate more and more wealth until forever, whereas poor people will continue to... well, die.
 
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#26
Until they figure out a way to escape death and price it accordingly. Then rich people will continue to accumulate more and more wealth until forever, whereas poor people will continue to... well, die.
They did figure this out. It is a process called "incorporation" which creates an entity (a corporation) which will never die of old age, and therefore has this as an advantage. While corporations have no conscience nor free will of their own, they can be steered by individuals who no doubt do have their own respective agenda. While these individuals will eventually die (or even just retire, a sort of "death without actually dying") and therefore lose their influence, they will no doubt have ensured that it is the people who matter most to them who will benefit from the corporation's continued existence, and who will no doubt continue the trend, therefore playing a sort of extended, one-way-towards-the-future version of "keep-away" with the assets that the corporation controls.

Mind you, I am not saying that corporations are Evil. They are not (see my statement above about no conscience/free will of their own). They are in no way more Evil than scorpions, guns, chemicals, or explosives...it is how they are used which matters.

--Patrick
 
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#27
If there was no wage gap, and the earnings of all were more or less the same, then how in today's society would one encourage hard work, good performance, and achievement? What rewards could be offered to those whose efforts prove to be of benefit, and what penalties could be imposed on the free-riders?

Unless there is a convincing solution to this problem, I tend to consider the alternative to be a significantly greater injustice than what we currently have.

Yes, because obviously, we either keep the current level of income inequality, of just pay everyone the same... no middle ground anywhere.


Really, i'd like to see how one actually justifies someone getting paid 100 time more then someone else in the same field based on the effort they put in alone. Or how someone writing a derivative, if well written, series of books deserves more money then someone who does back breaking manual labour.

The bad part of this as I see it is that the distribution seems inefficient. It spreads the burden around to everyone through taxation, gives a part of the monies to people who do not need it (the rich), while depriving the people who do need it (the poor) of that much more.
Well, there's always progressive taxes...[DOUBLEPOST=1390152613,1390152297][/DOUBLEPOST]
So thinking about the wage gap, which is obviously bad for society, I started wondering if it was unjust. Surely it must be, I supposed, but then that leads one to wonder where the injustice occurs? This leads to thoughts about whether success is therefore unjust as well, or, in fact if capitalism is inherently unjust.
Life's unjust, because "effort put in" =/= "profit got out"... i mean you can work a field as hard as you can and you'll never get more wield then a certain amount, while someone who writes a song can sell as many copies of it as there are people who can buy it...

Of course that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make it as fair as we can... but that's not that easy, and requires a lot of fine tuning that most people with fixed ideas don't seem willing to try.
 
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#28
Yes, because obviously, we either keep the current level of income inequality, of just pay everyone the same... no middle ground anywhere.
There are a lot of people whose thinking is, "I oversee 10 bookkeepers, therefore I am 10x more important than a bookkeeper and my salary should be 10x a bookkeeper's salary."

--Patrick
 
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#29
There are a lot of people whose thinking is, "I oversee 10 bookkeepers, therefore I am 10x more important than a bookkeeper and my salary should be 10x a bookkeeper's salary."

--Patrick
Then the bookkeepers think, "I actually do the work of this organization, why am I the lowest paid?"
 
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#30
Until they figure out a way to escape death and price it accordingly. Then rich people will continue to accumulate more and more wealth until forever, whereas poor people will continue to... well, die.
I assure you that the heat death of the universe will not spare the biologically immortal. Also, this.

The rain is not the sole random hardship of life, though I know you were using it as a metaphor. I, in turn, was more just responding to Charlie's predictable monosyllabic anticapitalist contribution. But an individual basis is the only true basis for determining what is just.

Wealth doesn't figure into it. Merit doesn't figure into it. Cancer, lightning strikes and car accidents happen to the virtuous as much as the villainous, and to some people that sounds like fairness "on average," but taken one person at a time in a subjective reference, there is not a day that passes without a worthy person suffering an ill that they did not deserve nor can they absorb. The injustice is on an individual basis, not a systemic one - and thus the efforts to address them must be similar. The only thing socialism can do to to alleviate the unjust is to inflict the misery upon all to the highest common denominator.

Someone will always be hurt. Someone will always be killed. Someone will always be poorer than someone else. The "leveling of the playing field" cliche is often perverted into meaning that the contest must be perverted until it guarantees everyone crossing the finish line in a tie. This is not accomplished by making a slow runner faster, but rather hobbling the quick. It stems from a belief that the only path to success is through inflicting injustice - that there must have been some unfair advantage, or some wrong committed, something stolen, someone elbowed aside, to get that fatcat capitalist to the feeding trough first, so the answer is to inflict injustice upon them to restore some kind of alleged balance. It's a sick viewpoint rooted in envy and sloth that means that the "level playing field" is only achieved once everyone is dug down to bedrock, playing ball in a deep, dark hole. The only possible fairness is the complete, total, universal, and therefor equal, application of utter and abject misery and pain. True equality will only be attained upon heat death.
Is it impossible to help the slow run faster, though? I would argue charity (weather through investment of funds, or generosity of time/energy) does not necessarily slow down the volunteer, and can bring the lagging up to pace, or at least improve their position. Speed may also not be the greatest metaphor; I find life is more an endurance race where you're either trying to finish or beating your own goals.
 
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#31
Many (dare I say most?) people have something that motivates them that is more of a lure than money.

I cannot even begin to try and explain how much it irks me that I was (and probably forever will be) denied the opportunity to experiment with the Universe due to a combination of lack of equipment, lack of funds, restrictions on materials, etc. I have a curiosity which cannot be contained, but I run into soooo many roadblocks that keep me from following it where it otherwise would lead. I look at the achievements of Da Vinci, Franklin, Tesla, etc., and while I don't for one moment think that I would bend History as much as any of them, the fact that I am denied the opportunity to even try due to my urgent need to spend almost every waking moment keeping a roof over my family's heads and food in our bellies makes me SO FRUSTRATED.

You could "pay" me in food, shelter, and lab supplies, and I would probably live a productive and happy life on next to no "income," but that is not how this world works...and it burns. Burns.

--Patrick
 
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#35
Both wealth and power have been proven to be addictive several times over.
Unfortunately, both are very closely tied, and almost by definition, those who desire power achieve power, and once they have it, will do whatever they can to stack the deck in their favor. How on earth would they suddenly dismantle the system that puts themselves on top and keeps them there? Moreover, why would they?

Plato said it a long time ago - the only ones fit to lead are those who don't want to and have it thrust upon them.
 
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