What is the origin of development of the idea in political/philosophical thinking that money/wealth is somehow special as far as the idea of "fairness"?

What are the reasons cited by that development for why wealth is considered somehow special among other things as far as being singled out as needing to be equalized/made fair?


  • Originally, this clearly wasn't a "thing", since in both ancient times (even in Athenian democracy, never mind various kingdoms/empires) there was no concept that there should be "fair"/"equitable" distribution of wealth. In Middle Ages it was the reverse, e.g. the most high aristocracy was exempt from taxes (e.g. hochadel vs. ritters in Germany).

  • That clearly changed sometime before the start 20th century and the rise of Progressivism, with the opposite view being a majorly held political view around the world by its end (the only modern political movement that opposes this idea is Objectivism and/or libertarianism - even most right wing/conservative movements support the concept of progressive taxation, with the only beef from conservatives/rightwingers being the degree of progressivity).

  • However, what puzzles me about this is, that money is treated specially even though it's NOT the only thing that affects and differenciates people. As a matter of fact, it's not necessarily even the most important thing - for example, see Maslow's hierarchy of needs where plenty of things have importance above or equal to money.

    Or the fact that from evolutionary biology/evolutionary psychology perspective, access to reproduction is the most important resource any human would care about.

    Yet, nobody ever discusses "fairness" or "equitable" access to those arguably more important non-monetary resources.

    My three favorite examples:

    1. it's 100% clear that some men gather a hugely disproportionate share of sexual favors from women (Wilt Chamberlain or JFK being the equivalent of financial 1%). As noted above, that is a LOT more important to a human than money, yet there is absolutely ZERO notion in any of political or philosophical modern thinking of fairness as far as this area. (please don't cite problems with implementing such equality as a reason - I can come up with numerous possible solutions that may be intrusive, but not hugely objectionable or offensive to modern sensibilities[1]).

    2. It's also clear from research that tall men, or good looking women, have significantly unfair advantage in the workplace (higher wages/more power/better career). But nobody ever objects to this as being unfair and in need of addressing.

    3. People with great talent for sales, persuasion and demagoguery have a clear advantage in selling the ideas advantageous to them (leaving aside whether you agree or disagree with the content of their ideas, a debate between G.W. Bush or Nixon, vs. Bill Clinton or JFK, is 100% preordained on who would win the audience, no matter what the positions they take in the debate).

please cite any opinions stated to classical thinkers/writers in areas of political science, law or social science etc..., not simply state your own personal reasoning

UPDATE: there were several attempts to prove that my thesis is incorrect and there are indeed efforts to equalize fairly things that aren't money. While I'm open to an answer that takes such a tack, please note that any example must be clearly and demonstrably NOT about money, as follows:

  • a specific non-monetary attribute very specifically and targetedly being denied to those who have that attribute in abundance; making pains to NOT only do so from the rich people who have that attribute but even from those who are not wealthy.

    A perfect case of a poor example here would be ADA. Yes, it attempts to ease the life of the disabled. NO, it does NOT do so by "taxing" the abled equally - merely by taxing the wealthy (whether abled or not) - either when taxes pay for it in case of government entities, or shareholders pay for it in case of private ones.

  • and grant it to those who have a lack of attribute, again independent of wealth.

    In other words, granting the benefit to only the poor under assumption that the wealthy can purchase said benefit is contrary to the point of what this question is asking.

[1] I was challenged to provide an example of ensuring "more equal" access to sexual favors. I added a couple of them to SamIAm's answer as comments

  • Just to be clear - while a good answer would include the history of how wealth equality arose as idea, the main thing I'm interested in is culling out wealth for equality treatment from other unequal things.
    – user4012
    Oct 3, 2014 at 23:38
  • 1
    Isn't the prohibition of polygamy (or, to be more specific, polygyny) a form of sexual communism?
    – Golden Cuy
    Oct 4, 2014 at 6:22
  • 2
    @DVK I don't understand your assertion that money is treated uniquely among necessities. Do people not argue that people deserve equitable access to food, housing, water, and medical care? (Sex is not equivalently a necessity: one does not die without it).
    – Publius
    Oct 4, 2014 at 9:46
  • 2
    Also, I'm not sure this qualifies as a real question. It seems more a way to assert the (disputed) premise that money is treated uniquely with regards to other necessities.
    – Publius
    Oct 4, 2014 at 10:34
  • 5
    @DVK Because money is fungible and housing isn't.
    – Publius
    Oct 5, 2014 at 5:31

5 Answers 5


No inherent origin required. Money as the ultimate fungible commodity has been recognized since ancient Mesopotamia.

If philosophers have explored precisely why we don't simply break athletes' legs or cut up pretty people's faces instead, you'd have to dig into their more esoteric works.

By redistributing money, the rich have to reduce consumption patterns (assumed to be implicitly unfair) to maintain liquidity. Redistributing the wealth produced instead of the modes of production is considered less of an upheaval to a society; even if the inherent unfairness of idle rich isn't fully addressed in this fashion.

Money is afforded especial attention because we don't live in a command economy.

  • I'm glad you're so dismissive, but in prior ages, money was NOT equalized this way.
    – user4012
    Oct 10, 2014 at 13:43
  • @DVK Are you referring to a time when money was not fungible or a time when wealth distribution didn't occur? Oct 10, 2014 at 17:25
  • the latter. I gave examples in my question (Hoachadel were not taxed, in Holy Roman Empire. I'm pretty sure that applied to many other countries of the era).
    – user4012
    Oct 10, 2014 at 17:28
  • @DVK Either way, once we started thinking about how to reduce inequality, the fungibility of money was going to be main way to treat the symptoms. Incidentally, equality through other mechanisms was considered; such as compulsory education to equalise intellect and eugenics to equalise physical health. In theory, as suggested in Peter Hamilton's works, equality of wealth is sufficient to equalise physical attributes once those attributes become modifiable (e.g. genetic engineering). Oct 10, 2014 at 17:45
  • 1
    In any case, money was the only workable lever available in the 19th century and considered the only self evident one; hence the lack of explicit rumination in the mainstream literature. Oct 10, 2014 at 17:46

I think the culprit has to be those utilitarian economists. In the end, equality isn't about money, per se, it's about happiness, fulfillment, and the ability to meet one's wants. In the 1900s Jeremy Bentham and succeeding economists theorized the idea of utility as an empirical sum of all these pleasures. Unfortunately, it proved completely impossible to actually measure. Daniel Reed gives a good summation in a paper on Utilitarians:

...while pleasures and pains constituted the metaphysical foundation of utilitarian economics, neither their measurement nor even their existence was central to their methods. Rather, choice behavior was assumed to reflect, however roughly, the quantity of utility derived from a choice. Marshall (1920), indeed, was explicit about what assumptions were being made, and their potential shortcomings ...

"It cannot be too much insisted that to measure directly, or per se, either desires or the satisfaction which results from their fulfilment is impossible, if not inconceivable. If we could, we should have two accounts to make up, one of desires, and the other of realized satisfactions. And the two might differ considerably. … But as neither of them is possible, we fall back on the measurement which economics supplies, of the motive or moving force to action: and we make it serve, with all its faults, both for the desires which prompt activities and for the satisfactions that result from them." (Book III, Chapter III, Footnote 57).

So economists settled for the idea of revealed preference; that people prefer what they choose. Since the easiest way (perhaps the only reliable way) to measure what people prefer is by what they buy, the idea of utility became intertwined with money. Later attempts to create a more equal distribution of utility fell to a more equal distribution of money.

Thus, to reconcile your examples, egalitarians don't actually care about equalizing height or demagoguery (or money), they care about the additional utility from being tall or that being a successful demagogue brings. Since measuring the extra utility of tallness or demagoguery is practically impossible, they settle with the flawed assumption that tallness and demagoguery bring money(which brings utility) and redistribute some of that.

But what of sex? Sex also probably correlates with money(it did in both examples from the question), but this relationship could be made much easier by allowing prostitution. Inherent to many cultures and perhaps even human biology is the idea of monogamy. In places where monogamy is culturally enforced, it wouldn't make sense for that society's redistributists to allow any sort of redistribution of sex, as that wouldn't be seen as increasing utility (defying the earlier assumption that choice=utility, but politicians generally aren't concerned with being completely consistent). In places where monogamy isn't enforced, there is no reason for prostitution to be illegal. In these societies money and sex can interchange freely according to individuals preferences strengthening money's use as a reasonable proxy for utility.

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." -John Maynard Keynes


Money is not considered to be special in political thinking.

We also strive for equality under the law

In most first world countries, law applies to just about everyone in it's jurisdiction the same, no matter how tall, pretty, or rich you are. In America, this is officially codified by section 1 of the 14th amendment.

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

As far as advantages in physical build go, there are still laws to enforce that equality.

you might have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other similar laws, which require some businesses to have handicapped parking spaces, ramps, and other accommodations. It doesn't matter much whether or not you used money to get those accommodations with money so long as they're there.

There are also programs that provide housing to those who can't afford to pay for their own, forcing people with a lot of housing(landlords) to provide it for a miniscule rent.

It's allowing people to pay miniscule amount for an apartment in the middle of Manhattan that the landlord would ordinarily charge 5-10x more for (the state does NOT pay the rest! They merely force the landlord to keep the rent low).

As far as sex goes, you said that you can come up with numerous possible solutions that may be intrusive, but not hugely objectionable or offensive to modern sensibilities, but I don't believe you, and I won't until you actually do come up with one.

Transferring talent is similar, except you physically can't do it, at least not in the way of taking it from someone and giving it to somebody else.

As far as material goods go, they're equated to money, because if you have money, you can buy material goods such as land, food, housing, shelter, transportation, etc, with money. In fact, that's classically what money is for. It's a credit for buying things.

So programs that redistribute money also effectively redistribute access to food, housing, shelter and other needs

  • -1 - food is NOT being taken specifically from people who eat too much. It's being taken from people who have "too much money", contradicting your assertion that money isn't treated specially. When I'm hungry all day because I worked non-stop, they don't have a program to take someone who east too much and give me their food. Food stamps are NOT about redistributing food, they are about redistributing money, in a way that feels and sounds less objectionable to people who dislike welfare "because people blow that money on drugs and other non-essential".
    – user4012
    Oct 27, 2014 at 17:23
  • 2
    Also, application of the law is extremely special and (while I admit I didn't take the pain to clearly state that) outside the scope of the question since it's not a zero-sum material good. Equal application of the law to one person does NOT change its application to others (e.g. if you avoid hanging someone for stealing bread, you don't go hang another person to balance things out from that change).
    – user4012
    Oct 27, 2014 at 17:25
  • @DVK Well, at least you admit that application of the law is so special that it blows money out of the water Oct 27, 2014 at 17:27
  • ... to prove my point about food stamps, you can gauge sentiment via a poll, to see how many people supporting food stamps as a desirable program would agree to replace it with cash equivalent.
    – user4012
    Oct 27, 2014 at 17:28
  • 1
    @DVK okay I've added that bit about housing to my answer Oct 27, 2014 at 18:25

It would appear you can use the law of diminishing returns from basic Economics to prove that a curve representing the value currently being received by a person should be weighted so that the fewer dollars he has, the greater the value he will receive per additonal dollar. A dollar for potatoes is worth more than a dollar for a couple feet flown in an airplane (Those on airplanes right now might disagree with me).

It follows that its fungibility makes money the only commodity where you can enforce a transfer to another person and create a theoretical net gain. If you transfer shoes, they may not fit; if you transfer wives and husbands, they may not match; even if you transfer crude oil, it might be of inferior quality. Money is the only mathematically pure commodity. If you transfer gold, gold might not be legal tender but certainly meets the criteria of money, it simply fell out of use.

Grading how strongly you would weigh the cost of the transfer itself likely determines where you live on the political spectrum.

  • "if you transfer wives and husbands, they may not match" - given divorce rates in USA, I'm tempted to quip that randomly transfering spouses can't make situation with good matching any worse :)
    – user4012
    Oct 28, 2014 at 13:17
  • @DVK Feel free to write an Alternet article about your new proposal.
    – John Woo
    Oct 28, 2014 at 13:40
  • Those who would apply the law of diminishing returns to wealth overlook something very important: some people have the skill and inclination to use wealth as capital to produce more wealth, while other people do not. The marginal value of a dollar to someone who would use it to generate more wealth is greater than the marginal value of a dollar to someone who would not do so, and those with the ability and inclination to use marginal wealth as additional capital to produce more wealth tend as a consequence to be wealthier than those who don't. The fact that the wealthy have little "need"...
    – supercat
    Nov 23, 2014 at 20:25
  • ...to spend marginal wealth on their own consumption increases rather than decreases the value of any marginal wealth they acquire.
    – supercat
    Nov 23, 2014 at 20:26

You won't find an answer because you just set up a strawman based on your own ideology. People have been arguing for equality in many domains, most notably political rights (”one man one vote”), power in the workplace or access to land, healthcare or education.

Your examples are also wholly unconvincing. To discuss only the one about tall men, beautiful women and success in the work place, people have in fact been arguing for “equality of chances” or “opportunity” for ages but how do you propose to enforce that? Ensure everybody is the same size? Force everyone to work in a cubicle so that they can't see who they are working with?

In a free-market trade-based society, mitigating excessive income differences is the most realistic way to deal with inequality (and it would be required anyway), while preserving freedom but it does not imply that the people who support such measures only care about money.

If money has a special role, it's mostly because it's fungible. Most inequalities (say success in the workplace or lack of food) can be most efficiently addressed by transferring money. But that's not a matter of political thinking, it's just a result of the structure of the economy.

  • 1
    "One man one vote" being ontopic implies that some men have MORE than one vote and those excess votes are transfered to those without. I don't recall that scenario happening in recent political history - at least in USA, AFAIK nobody ever had >1 vote. Power in the workplace - THAT one actually shows promise. Zero-sum situation. Access to land - no. You don't confiscate land from those who have lots of it to give to anyone (independent of wealth) who doesn't. You don't take healthcare or education from those who have "too much" either. It helps if you read the question.
    – user4012
    Oct 29, 2014 at 10:57
  • Why not confiscate land? That's what land reform in many country was about. But all that is beside the point, the fact is people have argued for equality in different domains and money is not “singled out”.
    – Relaxed
    Oct 29, 2014 at 10:58
  • the fact that there's no well known solution to the problem, doesn't mean that the problem doesn't exist or should not be addressed. Therefore, the fact that it isn't raised or discussed is wholly irrelevant to the fact that it doesn't have an obvious clear-cut solution, but that people don't bother perceiving it as the problem.
    – user4012
    Oct 29, 2014 at 10:59
  • when was the last time someone confiscated land independently of wealth without abolishing private ownership of land in the first case? (litmus test of independence: a wealthy industrialist with NO land gets MORE land as a result of the "fairness" confiscation than a poor peasant that already has land). I very carefully spelled this out in the question
    – user4012
    Oct 29, 2014 at 11:01
  • 1
    @DVK But the distinction is completely artificial, for the reasons I and others already gave. This might make sense from your perspective but it's not the way proponents of equality think about this so you can't expect anybody to lay out the origin or justification for an idea they don't agree they hold…
    – Relaxed
    Oct 29, 2014 at 11:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .