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Jaron Lanier on Why Wealth Concentration Among the Few Is Unsustainable

Technologist and author Jaron Lanier wants to reframe the debate about income inequality, starting with semantics. He takes exception to the notion that income equality would ever be a good thing. “To really make incomes equal, there would have to be some sort of force that would pound people down and say, We will all be equal!” said Lanier during a talk at Techonomy 2014 in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Rather, Lanier sees inequality as an inherent dimension of a market economy, noting that “any world of freedom is going to create variation of outcomes.” The problem, however, lies in how these outcomes are spread across society. On the one hand, said Lanier, “if you believe in agency of people, you have to believe in distribution of outcomes.” On the other hand, “an incredible concentration in a tiny minority is just not sustainable.” The reason Lanier gives for this is straightforward: “There aren’t any more customers to buy your stuff.”

Instead of focusing on income inequality, which is inevitable, Lanier wants to shift the debate to the quality of income distribution. “What we should be talking about is how we can get the economy to be a fair measurement device … which by definition should be giving us a bell curve,” said Lanier, explaining that a bell curve represents a natural distribution of outcomes, with equal numbers of high achievers and low achievers and most people in the middle. “Nothing but a bell curve can be an indicator of freedom where there’s a system with a market economy,” he concluded.

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2 Responses to “Jaron Lanier on Why Wealth Concentration Among the Few Is Unsustainable”

  1. Will Greene says:

    Funny coincidence…I first watched Jaron’s presentation a few days after the conference in November. Then, yesterday, the very quote about “there aren’t enough customers to buy your stuff eventually” was ringing in my mind. I came to your site to cue up the full video for a re-watch, but here it was, already highlighted!

    A powerful segment from a powerful presentation…one of the best from Techonomy 2014, in my opinion.

  2. conor_ob says:

    If there aren’t enough customers, then it seems the system will be self correcting. To the extent he is speaking about how cronyism has distorted market outcomes, this is an important (though hardly original) point. It’s not immediately evident to me, though, that a standard bell curve is the only possible outcome under free competition, but I’d be open to being convinced. I guess I’ll have to watch to find out…

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