The potential anti-aging revolution and the political obsession with inequality
In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, David Sinclair and Matthew LaPlante summarize the dramatic advances in one of the most important lines of anti-aging research. They talk about the hypothesis that much if not all of aging is caused by damage caused to the cellular epigenome. And they tantalizingly claim that important results in mice, and even humans, suggest that the youthful epigenomic cells can be restored — with dramatic results.
While unknown to the vast majority of people, this and other avenues of the anti-aging research may soon lead to perhaps the biggest revolution in human history, a radical human life extension if not functional immortality (save for accidents and the eventual destruction of the Earth by our own Sun, perhaps).
This change, if it happens, will certainly have dramatic consequences for how humans live and view themselves and the world. Will most people even give birth to children, for example? The anti-aging breakthrough is also certain to cause a lot of serious soul-searching and even resistance, especially from people who believe that human mortality gives meaning to our lives and from environmentalists concerned with overpopulation.
However, in this article, I would like to look at what the anti-aging promise reveals about one of the most important political and philosophical issues of our time, inequality.
Will ordinary people benefit?
While anti-aging research has not yet gained an important spot in the public consciousness, the usual response most people concerned with inequality almost reflexively come up with is to say that its fruits will only benefit the rich. The ordinary folk will never be allowed to attain something that spectacular, have they ever been?
This idea is very seductive to the pessimistic or conspiratorial worldview but it quickly becomes clear how flawed it actually is when one considers how dramatically almost all humans have benefitted from major innovations in the past. Today, whether one is an average Joe or Bill Gates, one is likely to use largely the same laptop or smartphone to access the Internet or chat with one’s buddies. If one has headache, one will use the same analgetics, clean water runs in everyone’s home, even the Babolat tennis racquet I play with is probably quite a bit better than what Roger Federer had ten years ago.
There is also nothing inherent to the R&D products of anti-aging research that would make them by definition only accessible to a chosen few. In fact, some of the existing promising anti-aging drugs such as nicotinamide riboside and fisetin can be easily bought online by someone with an average salary and most others, like metformin and rapamycin, are only hard to get because of medical rules making them prescription-only.
The reality that fruits of anti-aging research tend to quickly become available to almost everyone does not seem staggering to someone concerned with inequality but it should be! There is probably no good potentially more important to human well-being than an a lot longer healthy life. And if the system seems horribly unequal by the monetary metric but actually gives everyone the chance to drink the elixir of youth, maybe there is something badly wrong with the inequality metric? Maybe the income and wealth differences are not that much of a big deal, despite seeming to be?
And notice that there are currently no government programs assisting people with getting anti-aging drugs. It is not thanks to government subsidies that ordinary people can already easily obtain them.
Are 90-year-old billionaires actually less privileged than current college kids?
The connection between anti-aging R&D and the issue of inequality gets even more interesting, though. Previously, we have seen that perhaps, people in the modern world are far less actually unequal than monetary metrics would make one believe. However, is actual inequality per se even a genuine political concern, in the first place?
By an object of political concern I mean an issue that, if genuine, justifies government action with regard to it. People on the Left tend to believe that any significant inequality qualifies as such. However, what if it were possible to show that there is a monstrous type of actual inequality attempting to correct which would only cause grave injustice? Surely, this would suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong at considering actual inequality a per se political issue.
The tantalizing promise of the anti-aging research provides us with just such an example. Consider that, despite the availability of some early anti-aging drugs, people who are of a certain age at the moment (say, 90) are probably too old and too sick to benefit from a potential radical life extension down the road. Even if there were a sudden massive influx of funding into the anti-aging field right now.
Also, consider that among the potentially profoundly unfortunate today’s very old people, quite a few are very rich. At the same time, notice that a 20-year-old college student, who may be quite poor or even have negative wealth because of the tuition debt in some countries may well live hundreds of years longer than a present-day 90-year-old billionaire.
It would seem that this inequality is way more significant than almost any monetary one imaginable. If you doubt it, just ask yourself the question whether you would prefer to live with an average income for 500 years or as a billionaire till the age of 95. If you are honest with yourself, the answer is obvious.
However, if the current age is a huge source of inequality what can be done politically to genuinely correct or mitigate it? It would appear that only profoundly immoral things. Governments could, for instance, slow down the anti-aging research or ban it from being pursued altogether. Anyone in her right mind would agree that such measures would be monstrously unjust.
In sum, a surprising implication of the huge promise that the anti-aging research represents is that actual inequality is not a proper object of political concern and action. It appears to validate the apt recognition by F. A. Hayek that the mere fact that the relatively spontaneous social order results in actual (distributive) inequalities is not per se unjust because there is no single authority that distributes the goods, like a parent does among her children.