Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spirit Level Week: What About Equality?

The hot new liberal book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argues that, since the more equal developed countries demonstrate lower health and social problems, we should implement more egalitarian initiatives, such as higher taxes on the rich and employee-owned companies. But can this politically compelled egalitarianism work in practice?

Back to start: Equality Without Context

Let us look at the question from a Marxian perspective. Marx maintained that laws and culture are a "superstructure" built upon the base of underlying "productive forces." Here is what he wrote:

[M]en inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness.
It is notable that hunter-gatherer society was usually extremely egalitarian. Men combined immediately against anyone who tried to become a powerful leader. Boasting, e.g., about hunting prowess, was verboten and food-sharing was widespread. In Marxian terms, we can say that the nature of hunter-gatherer life called for a strict egalitarianism.

But the agricultural revolution seems to have changed all that. It ran on different productive forces, and the superstructure was different. From our perspective, agricultural society was remarkably oppressive and hierarchical. It was a status society, in which the status of the people and the social hierarchy was fixed and inherited. A warrior landed class ruled over all. We can see that the peculiar nature of agricultural life required this exploitative superstructure, for the agricultural peasant is extremely vulnerable to plunder and piracy. He must store enough food to survive from one harvest to the next and save enough seed corn to grow the new crop as well. The peasant desperately needs defense from raiders, and the price in subjection and servitude was very high.

It seems clear that the industrial revolution changed the productive forces significantly. The productive forces that got us from $3/day two centuries ago to $100/day today require, according to Deirdre McCloskey in her Bourgeois Cycle, a bourgeoisie dignified and free. Bourgeois trading and bourgeois innovation are astonishingly productive, creating a free lunch of wealth in which all can participate. The social superstructure is egalitarian, in that anyone can trade and innovate, but it is also hierarchical, allowing successful upstarts to become very wealthy, lording it over their fellows with trophy wives and executive jets before they get religion and give all their money away in philanthropy.

Wilkinson and Pickett see an end to the economic growth and innovation of the bourgeois era. On the one hand, people in the developed countries no longer find improvement in their quality of life from income increases, and the search for material wealth increases anxiety rather than wellbeing. On the other hand, we need to transition to a sustainable lifestyle to deal with the "problems of global warming and the environmental limits to growth."

You can see what is going on here. Wilkinson and Pickett are proposing a return to a hunter-gatherer social system, where competition and innovation is self-consciously directed at combining "acceptable living standards with a sustainable economy".

Never mind whether this vision is desirable. Is it possible? If modern society is governed in order to return it to the steady state of the hunter-gatherer era, can we survive and thrive? On Marx's view of the productive forces, we are bound to wonder. And, to apply the Precautionary Principle, we would have to suggest that the burden of proof is on the egalitarians to prove that their egalitarian future will actually work.

One thing to keep in mind: the egalitarian countries admired by Wilkinson and Pickett are often
countries with a very low total fertility rate. Germany reports 1.36 children per woman and Japan reports 1.26 children per woman. However Sweden is up at 1.80. Maybe the problem will be solved when the egalitarian countries cease to exist.

Next: The Bourbon Left

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