Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No Return to Equality

I sometimes receive correspondence from readers off the blog, so to speak, and a recent one picks up on Monday’s piece about free markets v. capitalism. I don’t think capitalism needs much defending it - clearly it works overall.

Nor do I buy the ‘inequality’ complaint, as if this is something new and associated uniquely with modern capitalism. It began with the first steps away from the ‘1st Age of Hunting’ when some humans discovered the institution of property by excluding outsiders from their pasture land in the ‘2nd Age of Shepherding’ (they preferred to fence their livestock from wandering away or outsiders from wandering in and helping themselves to the livestock). In time, other humans applied the institution of property to the ‘3rd Age of Agriculture’, preferring to fence their fields off from wandering livestock eating the crops and outsiders trampling over the crops.

These developments created inequality. Those who were part of the insider groups – those who led them and those who worked for the leaders – lived better than those who didn’t and those who stuck with hunting in the shrinking territory unclaimed by the property owners or too distant to be reached (that is, outside the Mediterranean and Western European lands; and later in the East across the Asian continents).

The rest of the world remained in totally equal societies and economies, that didn’t change much until the property-owning societies ‘found’ them in the geographical explorations from the 15th century onwards. As Smith noted the gap between the poorest labourer and the prince in 18th century Britain was much smaller than the gap between the poorest labourers and the ‘savage’ princes on North America and Africa (Wealth Of Nations, WN I.i.11: p 23-24) The reason was in the advanced division of labour in the unequal 4th Age of Commerce then emerging fairly rapidly from the great disruptions after the fall of the western Roman Empire nearly a thousand years earlier.

Some evince a desire to return to the ‘simpler’ life of nature of those previous equal societies, though quickly modify their desires once they realise what they would have to give up just to reach their simple-life goals. Not only would all the elements of modern society (good and bad) be absent but they would have somehow to revert to the knowledge needed to exist solely within the bounds set by nature, and, crucially, the population levels sustainable by what was available for the equal basics of food, coverings, and shelter, i.e., not six billion but something less than a hundred million, may be fewer.

Fine, if you and your descendants are among those not eliminated in the largest world genocide ever contemplated; but if not, then within a short time. Happy hunting. Of course, you first have to persuade everybody else to choose suicide and leave the planet to you. Good luck.



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