April 7, 2014

Perspectives on Inequality

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We witness radical inequality everywhere in today’s society: Luxurious apartment buildings next to impoverished favelas in Rio de Janeiro, the vast income gap between city-dwellers and rural peoples in China and increasing income inequality in various U.S. cities such as San Francisco and New York City. This rising inequality is considered an inescapable byproduct of globalization and urbanization, but its roots run deeper.

A look at history reveals inequality’s integral role in the development of civilization, from the rise of ancient China to the rise of the classic Maya. Evidence of inequality, such as elaborate tombs and concentration of material wealth in both cases, signals the beginning of different kinds of societies that are closer to what we would now call “civilizations.” The Egyptian pyramids we marvel at today show how strong this inequality could be, but even subtle differences such as tombs that hold more ceramic pots than normal, a sign of increasing inequality in burials, signal an important change toward urbanization.

To understand how essential inequality is to our idea of civilization, consider the example of the Kura-Araxes culture, which existed in the southern Caucasus between 3400 BC and 2000 BC. This culture is striking because it developed uniquely as an egalitarian society despite existing next to the aggressive, hierarchical Mesopotamian civilization. It also lasted over 1000 years and had its own material culture and many distinctive features. Still, the Kura-Araxes culture is not considered a civilization, in large part because of its lack of specialization and hierarchy. This case not only challenges our definition of civilization, but also emphasizes the principles that we consider essential for the development of a durable, advanced society; these principles are ones that we want to follow to consider ourselves “civilized,” and in this way they shape our society. Moreover, the story we tell ourselves about our own civilization reinforces certain ideas: If we tell ourselves that to be civilized means to expansionist, expansionist policies will follow. Thus, including inequality in the picture of what civilization should be like only serves to generate more inequality in our society.

Modern attempts at ending inequality have failed. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx both proposed communism as a way towards social and economic equality, but wherever their ideas have been implemented, some people always end up as “more equal” than others. Similarly, in the United States, the romantic idea that all men are equal has not held up in practice. For instance, social status allows certain people like celebrities or police officers to get away with actions that would otherwise be unacceptable. The capitalist version of the “some are more equal than others” communist problem is that some are freer than others, and economic inequality feeds social inequality in a never-ending loop.

No tax, healthcare or regime reform will eliminate inequality. This problem has plagued humans since the beginning of civilization and seems to be internal to human relationships. It arises again and again despite changes in ideology and despite increased awareness of its effects. This argument is rather philosophical, but it highlights the need for something beyond changes at the legislation level. If inequality is indeed so ingrained in human nature, its minimization depends on the active engagement of people at every level of society, from legislation to comprehensive grassroots efforts and everything in between.