For the Greek philosopher Diogenes, self-control and self-sufficiency were the essential values. He lived a life with no possessions, except for a cloak, a purse and a barrel made out of clay in which he would sleep.
Intrigued, the emperor Alexander The Great went to visit him. "I'm the most powerful man in the world. Ask what you want and I will give it to you." Diogenes did not falter: "Yes. Step out of my light, you're blocking the sun."
The philosopher and the Emperor are examples of the extreme, and have been used to illustrate Socrates's theory that, among mortals, those with the fewer possessions are those closest to the gods.
Alexander, a former pupil and patron of Aristotle's, learned his lesson. When one of his courtiers mocked the philosopher for "turning down" the offer that was put to him, the Emperor replied: "If I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes." Extremes share much in common.
And so from an ethical point of view, what is wrong with inequality? Our ancient example reminds us that inequality is not bad in itself. What matters instead is the legitimacy of the process that may create it.
The justice — or lack thereof — of the end result depends on the means that brought us there. The crucial question therefore should be: Is the observed inequality essentially a reflection of the difference in talents, efforts and values, or is it the result of a game that was rigged to begin with. In other words, does the disparity come from a deep lack of equity in the initial conditions of life, of the deprivation of basic rights and/or of racial, sexual or religious discrimination?
Billions (and billions) wasted
In the last 20 years, Brazil has made real progress thanks to achievement of economic stability and policies of social inclusion. Still, despite that, the country remains one of the most unequal on the planet. As far as income distribution is concerned, Brazil is the second worst in the G20, the fourth in Latin America and the 12th in the world.
But we must not confuse the symptom with the virus. Brazil's poor income distribution is the fruit of a grave anomaly: the brutal disparity in the initial conditions of life as well as in the opportunities for young children and teenagers to develop according to their abilities and talents, which would allow them to widen their range of possible choices and more often realize dreams for their future.
Brazil's "new middle class" gained access to consumption, but not to true civic goods. In the 21st century, half of the population has no sewer system, public education and health are in an appalling state, public transport is a daily nightmare for commuters, about 5% of all deaths — mostly of the poor, the young and black people — are homicides. Finally, one-third of those who have left superior education (if the term actually applies) are functional illiterates.
This doesn't seem due to a lack of resources, or at least, there is no shortage of resources when the government spends $4.5 billion on Swedish fighter jets, or when it finances the construction of football stadiums for the World Cup, or when it plans to build a bullet-train for $16.7 billion, or $6.7 billion on nuclear submarines. The total amount of subsidies granted by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) to a selected group of partners and companies surpasses the amount spent in the whole Family Allowance welfare program.
No, what is lacking here is simply common sense!
Brazil will continue being a violent and absurdly unjust country, put to shame by its inequality, for as long as the conditions of the family in which a child has the good or bad luck to be born plays the overriding role in defining his future.
Human diversity gave us Diogenes and Alexander The Great. But the lack of a minimum of equity in the initial conditions of life limits greatly the room for choice, rigs the game of income distribution and poisons our society.
Inequality in opportunity to succeed, I dare to believe, is the root of what's wrong with Brazil.
*Eduardo Giannetti is an economist, lecturer at Cambridge University and writer.