Yesterday we published a guest blog by Joe Brewer, A World without Poverty. It triggered quite an intense discussion, which is a good thing (this is what this Forum is about). However, and somewhat disappointingly to me, most critique focused on ‘poverty,’ instead of ‘a world without.’
To me, Joe’s blog is really about inequality, not poverty, and certainly not about absolute poverty. In many ways, today’s poor in industrialized countries are better off than the rich in historical agrarian societies, such as Ancient Rome – they live longer and have entertainment options unavailable to the wealthiest nobles living in pre-industrial societies.
Relatively speaking, however, in terms of wealth differentials, we made very little – if any – progress since the days of the Roman Empire. So absolute poverty has declined, but relative poverty – inequality – did not (and in the last several decades it actually increased).
So why call it ‘poverty’ rather than ‘inequality’? Well, inequality is a more abstract notion, and it does not necessarily sound negative in American English. Poverty resonates. No American president has declared a War on Inequality (at least, so far). But we have been in a War on Poverty since 1964.
Lyndon Johnson (1964): I declare an unconditional war on poverty in America. Image
And losing it, at least, as long as we are talking about relative poverty. And relative is what’s important. It is well known that a great majority of people would prefer to earn $50,000 in a society in which incomes vary from $10,000 to $50,000, rather than earn $100,000 in a society where the range of incomes is between $100,000 and $500,000.
There is a good evolutionary reason for being attuned to relative differences. Evolutionary ‘fitness’ (which explains why some traits spread, and others go extinct) is a relative thing. In a kingdom of elk with 10 cm antlers, the male who grows 20 cm long antlers will be king (and will mate with most females). In a kingdom where other males have 30 cm long antlers, he is nobody. It doesn’t matter how long your horns are in absolute terms, all you need is for them to be longer than any of your rivals.
Extinct giant elk: individually it made sense to grow larger antlers than the next guy. Collectively, they went extinct. Source
Inequality matters because we keenly feel relative differences. There is both empirical evidence and theoretical reasons why inequality is corrosive of cooperation. Without going into mathematical details, one of the central results in multilevel selection theory (the Price equation) says that it is very difficult for cooperation to evolve if within-group differences in fitness are large. And it is very easy to evolve away from cooperation if there is much within-group inequality.
As I said in the beginning of this post, I was somewhat disappointed that most comments focused on ‘poverty’ and what it means. But Joe makes another important point: how can we reduce poverty (inequality)? He appeals to our hunter-gatherer past.
Here’s how I would put it. Our behavior is determined by many layers of evolved psychology. It’s like an onion. The outward – most recent – skin is the modern society layer. Below it lays the agricultural society layer, then hunter-gatherer layer, the great ape layer, and the basic mammal layer. I believe the idea comes from Jon Haidt.
So things like food and sex are the basic mammal drive. Our striving for social hierarchies reflects the great ape evolutionary past. Our egalitarianism and ‘inequity aversion’ (preference for equitable outcomes) comes from the hunter-gatherer period. But we also respect authority, which evolved during the agrarian society period, with its highly despotic archaic states. Finally, things like democracy, tolerance, respect for diversity, etc. are the most recently evolved (and the most fragile) layer.
The point is that all these psychological layers coexist and it is up to us which we want to deploy in order to achieve positive social outcomes. For most of its evolutionary history our species lived in small-scale highly egalitarian societies and the preference for equitable outcomes is very deeply ingrained.
How could it work? Let’s take an example of corporate taxes. It is well known that some large American corporations not only pay zero taxes, they actually enjoy a “negative tax” – they get more from the state in handouts than they contribute to the state’s coffers. Taking a page from the hunter-gatherer manual on how to deal with such antisocial entities, we could deploy graduated sanctions to them. We should start by gossiping about such companies (to some extent it’s already going on, in the media). Then we can escalate by imposing fines and so on. This may not be easy, because wealthy corporations are very good at using their wealth to avoid such sanctions.
But there is another weapon in the hunter-gatherer tool kit for the control of upstarts: ridicule. I wonder whether employing ridicule strategically (directing it not only at the faceless corporations, but also at actual individuals – the CEOs and other top officers) may be the most effective thing we can do to start reducing inequality.
Although my cynical side suggests that what worked in a small-scale society may not deter the CEOs from laughing all the way to the bank…