Plato, in his great book about social justice the Republic, in 321 B.C., warned us that “Any State, however small, is in fact divided into two -- one the State of the poor, the other that of the rich – and these are [forever] at war with one another.” Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, in the Politics, went a step further. He stressed that, if the poor are driven to extreme hardship and deprivation, the conflict between the rich and poor may explode into violence and destroy the state. When the poor have nothing more to lose, the social contract that binds any society together may break down.
We should not have to re-learn this is ancient wisdom the hard way, but it seems we are prone to forget the past and are “condemned to re-live it,” as the philosopher George Santayana put it. (Or at least make it rhyme, after Mark Twain.) The French Revolution was, at bottom, about bread for the poor. And so were the Russian and Chinese revolutions in the twentieth century. More recently, the turmoil in the Middle East – ranging from the (mostly) disastrous Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS and the flood of refugees – may in fact have been triggered by severe droughts and steep spikes in global food prices, according to an in-depth analysis by the New England Complex Systems Institute. Extreme poverty was the root cause, and many Middle Eastern governments were oblivious to the needs of their citizens and were unresponsive.
In our own country, the right wing has been making war on the poor, and the common good, for more than a generation, according to Nancy MacLean’s eye-opening new book, Democracy in Chains. And now it seems to be getting worse. We see the ideological justification for it in the libertarian novelist Ayn Rand’s glorification of the captains of industry -- the “creators” and “makers” -- versus the “masses” who are “moochers” and “takers.” We see the results in our grossly inadequate minimum wage laws (though some states are doing better), and in the serious decline in real incomes for the working class over the past 30-odd years. We see it in the outsourcing of our manufacturing base, leaving whole swaths of the country in deep poverty. We see it in the growing problem of homelessness and addiction in our high-rent cities. We see it in the enduring Republican hostility to Obamacare. We see it in the determined efforts of conservatives to undermine our public education system. We see it especially in the new tax law. Some 80 percent of the tax cuts will go to the “have mores” (as former President Bush put it) and, if the Congressional Republicans have their way, the huge, baked-in budget deficits will be offset by cuts to social welfare programs and by the tax payers of the future. Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other lifelines to the poor will be decimated. To borrow a phrase, it’s Robin Hood in reverse.
But there are also grounds for hope. In fact, there are some compelling exceptions to Plato’s dour verdict. It may possible to create a fairer and more just society where the rich and poor find mutually acceptable compromises and, in effect, sign a peace treaty. The United States in the decades immediately after World War Two was, believe it or not, the model for an enlightened social welfare capitalist society. During a period known as “the great compression,” income inequality in this country fell dramatically. The income share of the top 1%, for instance, declined from about 23% in the 1920s to about 8% in 1973. (Now it is back to about 25%.) This was augmented by the New Deal and Great Society legislation under Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson that created a broad safety net of social welfare programs, while the G.I. Bill of Rights for the millions of returning World War Two veterans provided education, housing and other benefits that lifted a whole generation into the middle class. (Now we are sixth from the bottom of 173 countries in terms of our income inequality, with about half of our population living in poverty or having low incomes.)
An even better (contemporary) exception to Plato’s pessimism, I believe, can be found in Norway and some other Scandinavian countries. What has been called the Nordic Model encompasses full employment at decent wages, a relatively flat distribution of income, a full array of supportive social services, extensive investment in infrastructure, excellent free education and health care, a generous retirement system, high social trust, a strong commitment to democracy, and a government that is sensitive to the common good, not to mention having a competitive capitalist economy with high productivity and deep respect for the environment. To top it off, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund (a reserve committed to the common good) currently totals over $1 trillion, a huge nest egg for such a small country. (Some apologists for American-style capitalism are dismissive about Norway, viewing it is an exception because it has the advantage of all those North Sea oil profits. Yes but, America was endowed with vastly greater oil deposits, which we have been exploiting for more than 100 years. So where is our sovereign wealth fund?)
The challenge of realizing a fair, and more equitable society is a daunting task, to say the least. But the exceptions prove that it can be done. It is a social choice that can even be achieved through the greatest of all political acts – compromise. This will be the subject for more blog items and a new book
About Peter Corning
Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington. He was also once a science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.