For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service. I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.
I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.
It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C. There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’). Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.
Enter Solon. He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich. He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides. He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect. More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete. One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.
He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of
- Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
- Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
- Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
- Etc. You get the idea.
By some accounts aristocrats paid a percentage 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.
He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work. This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.
He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.
In the end
- Athens had a stronger middle class
- Athens had relative social stability
- Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later. They create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)
Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us. For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process. He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word). C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways. We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.
I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it. Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this (i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know)?
The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before. But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians. For better or worse we are more individualistic. The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.
Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours. Ancient Persia could be an exception. The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception. They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean. It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures. But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different, and no one wanted to try integrating them into the Republic, and no one thought of not ruling over them in some way. This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic. It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality. If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*
The trade-offs are huge. You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and relatively open immigration. The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible. Even if we could do those things, it is debatable that we should.
Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete. But . . . he found a way to work with it.
Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America? If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia? Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America? Would the world be safer? I don’t know the answers to these questions.
We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal. In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way. Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.
Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C. They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed. All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that
- Both sides used violence to settle issues
- Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’ They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.
The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.). The Roman civil wars over the political questions of the day gave them the emperors.
We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley. He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid. If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.
None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue. Why is inequality a problem in the first place? By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.
We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so. For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common. We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.
Other societies experience inequality, but seem not to think much of it. Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue. But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.** We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.
Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success. The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously. Vast gaps between classes opened up.
Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically. In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.
Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state. Marx had many things wrong. But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess. Why did the capitalist state survive? Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society. Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.
The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle. It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing. I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth. I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt. I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.
Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place. All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.
All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution. The monastics show us that it is possible.
*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality. Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?
**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.