The Case for Redistribution

If we’re serious about sexual fulfillment, we should worry more about economic inequality, not sex robots.

A man giving money to another male robot with a pensive robot in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by geckophotos/iStock; Phonlamai/iStock.

For decades, it’s been a mainstream political taboo to make a full-throated case for redistribution. Very suddenly, however, a few conservative commentators have begun to warm up to the idea—but not for the reasons you might suspect. Indeed, what’s pushed these conservatives to reconsider the merits of transferring goods and services from the “haves” to the “have-nots” is the rise of the violent “incel”—that is, the involuntarily celibate man who scorns women for “denying” him the sexual gratification he feels is his right.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, right-leaning columnist Ross Douthat takes seriously the discontent expressed by murderous “incels” (such as Elliot Rodger and, more recently, Toronto van-attack suspect Alek Minassian) and ruminates over the question of whether society ought to use redistributive measures to give these men their “due,” the better to pacify them and stave off more violence. To make his case for the “inevitability” of state intervention to satisfy disgruntled incels, Douthat lumps together technocratic, dehumanizing ramblings from the fringes of the libertarian right, on the one hand, and genuinely rigorous and probing leftist philosophical reflections on the matter from Amia Srinivasan, on the other.

That equation, however, strikes me as more than a little bit unfair to Srinivasan, whose sensitivity to the threats to women’s autonomy posed by the toxic masculinity of incels is more or less absent in conservative discussions of these topics—including Douthat’s.

But before we get to the point where we are coming up with an elaborate system for subsidizing sex robots and hiring government-contracted sex workers, let’s talk about an easier thing to redistribute: wealth.

The richest 1 percent of the U.S. owns 40 percent of the wealth. The poorest 50 percent of the world’s population possesses about the same amount as the richest eight people in the world. Nearly half of Americans can’t come up with $400 in an emergency. And yet three men, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of Americans, more than 160 million people, combined. These statistics show that the powers that be would rather see billions of people forced to live without basic necessities (clean water, food, housing, medical care, education, and so on) than tinker with the obscene surplus wealth of a handful of elites.

This highly unequal distribution reflects neither differences in what people deserve nor in how hard they’ve worked—indeed, the biggest masses of wealth are generally accumulated by way of “unearned” or “passive” forms of capital income such as arbitrage, speculation, interest, rent, royalties, dividends, and so on. And that’s to say nothing of the mountain of historical injustices—colonial conquest, enslavement, and so on—that played a role in producing the existing distribution of wealth.

Now ponder this: There are people who shrug their shoulders at this monstrous state of affairs and construct all manner of pseudo-intellectual rationalizations for why it must continue, or for why there’s no redistributive cure that wouldn’t be worse than the disease itself. Douthat himself has made many such arguments through the years, downplaying the value of redistribution and choosing instead to focus on our decline in morality and the importance of improving our “culture.”

And yet Douthat and the libertarian economist Robin Hanson, whom Douthat cites, are remarkably open-minded when it comes to thinking about whether it might make sense to speak of a politics of “redistributing sex.” That’s more than a touch hypocritical, of course, but let’s assume for a moment that the investment in universal sexual fulfillment is genuine.

If we think that promoting human flourishing is a worthy political goal, it’s not crazy to think that politics should concern itself with various obstacles to flourishing, among them obstacles to a healthy sex life.

And this is precisely where the redistribution of wealth, not of sex, becomes even more attractive. After all, there’s nothing sexy about financial instability and the anxiety and stress it entails. There’s nothing sexy about a society that forces millions of people to endure long hours, unpredictable work schedules, tyrannical management practices, and insufficient pay just to make (or try to make) ends meet. These social ills could be easily remedied—indeed, one could probably foot the bill for most of them by laying hold of a few days’ worth of Jeff Bezos’ “earnings.” (Bezos, for his part, is just not sure what to do with all that money he’s got, except spend it in space, but I’ve got a few ideas for planet Earth, if he’s interested!)

Another redistributive remedy would be to radically reduce the length of the workday without reducing worker income—in other words, to redistribute leisure time more evenly and justly throughout society. How are people supposed to cultivate meaningful relationships—sexual or otherwise—or explore their inner desires and needs unless they have plenty of time (and energy) to do so? In the U.S., we are forced to cram our dating and romantic lives into schedules strained by overly long and stressful work hours, sometimes relying on technology that has blurred the lines between work and play. Stress, not technology or “immorality,” is the main enemy of romance and libidos. So if we want to give more people a chance at sexual fulfillment, what could be more effective than extra leisure time and a little bit of security?

No doubt, employers and the rich will (as they always have) resist any demand to reduce working time without reducing take-home pay. But that’s no reason not to do it—that’s simply an organizing obstacle we’ll have to find ways to overcome.

These aren’t utopian measures. Metalworkers in Germany recently forced reluctant employers in their industry to grant them a 28-hour workweek for full-time pay—if the U.S. labor movement were stronger, it could win gains like these and then some. And, of course, the U.S. government could easily increase taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent with an eye to invest in measures that would boost quality of life for millions of ordinary citizens.

For writers like Douthat, however, the redistribution of wealth shouldn’t be on the menu of possible remedies. As he sees it, the dilemma we face is this: Either society must redistribute sex to satisfy the incels or else the only viable option is to turn back the clock to a time when traditional gender roles, sexual monogamy, and lifelong marriage were the cornerstones of domestic life. No doubt there are plenty of conservatives who would prefer the second option to the first.

But if a return to the 1950s is being offered as a solution to current problems of sexual frustration and social isolation, we have to ask: How sexually fulfilling and healthy was that era for everyone who lived through it? That it was deeply unfulfilling, alienating, and damaging for many women is well-documented—and that’s to say nothing of the multitude of people in this era who were forced into heterosexual arrangements that would never align with their own needs and desires. Indeed, one wonders whether this arrangement was even good for the men of the era who ostensibly had it best, given the circumstances. Certainly the ubiquity of extramarital affairs instigated by men of those decades suggest otherwise.

So rather than turn the clock back—or fuss over the logistical difficulties or “creepiness” of subsidizing sex robots—why not simply tax the rich, redistribute their wealth to everyone else, and eliminate many of the unsexy economic obstacles to sexual flourishing?