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Inequality: Economists Discuss it at the UN but Forget About Human Nature

If human nature was not such a powerful drive there would be no Ten Commandments and Paul Krugman wouldn’t talk about eradicating inequality

Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, Paul Krugman, Distinguished Professor of Economics at CUNY Graduate Center; Senior Scholar, Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality Panelists Mario Cimoli, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean Lucas Chancel, Co-Director, World Inequality Lab Janet Gornick, Director, Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at CUNY Graduate Center; Director, United States Office of LIS Nora Lustig, Director, Commitment to Equity Institute at Tulane University Kunal Sen, Director, UNU-WIDER

I think of a hypothetical case: I imagine a country where inequality has been eradicated and everyone now owns 5 cows… Is it not more than likely that at some point, one of my neighbors might want to go out and steal a 6th cow? Perhaps even one of mine?

A few days ago, I attended what was billed as an open dialogue on the subject of “Inequality in the 21st Century: Rethinking What to do About It” at the United Nations. The world-renowned economists, one of whom, Paul Krugman, is a Nobel Memorial Prize winner, debated on the complexity of the subject, and indeed, they even questioned the very definition of “poverty” and “inequality” and attempted to arrive at a definition that could satisfy them.

Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, asked: What constitutes poverty? Is it measured only in earnings? Education? Opportunities? Krugman reflected on the recent history of it—which is actually quite short; apparently it wasn’t until the 1980s that economists started to notice a widening gap between the top and bottom earners.  This new awareness, Krugman mentioned, trickled down to pop culture and was reflected in the movie, “Wall Street”. Since then the gap has widened more, and accelerated globally.

While all these facts and statistics were interesting and enlightening, another question was uppermost in my mind: What about the humanitarian and philosophical aspect of the issue? The experts seem to work on the premise that it is possible to eradicate inequality and even poverty, but can that really be done? If poverty and inequality were to be eradicated it would constitute an unprecedented accomplishment in human history.

I think of a hypothetical case: I imagine a country where inequality has been eradicated and everyone now owns 5 cows– which constitutes a comfortable level of living. Is it not more than likely that at some point one of my neighbors might want go out and steal a 6th cow? Perhaps even one of mine? Is it not “human nature” to want more than your neighbor? If that were not the case then there would have been no need for the Ten Commandments. As a matter of fact, the Ten Commandments may be considered the first of many attempts to regulate social justice and insure that the playing field is level for everyone. Whether you consider the Commandments from a religious perspective or not is not the issue: they represent a tacit acknowledgement that human beings have a dark side and that they need to be “managed”. Their baser instincts need to be curbed.

More than half of the Ten Commandments deal with ownership in one way or the other: don’t take your neighbor’s wife (Commandment number 9) or goods (Commandment number 10)  or his life (Commandment number 5). Indeed, there are two commandments that place a prohibition on stealing: one general (“thou shalt not steal”) and one specific (“thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”).

It is true that at a certain point in the history of human evolution, a degree of social equality existed, as psychologists tell us: “…for most of our history we cooperated and socially controlled the level of inequality amongst our closest kin and friends—we collaborated to actively ensure a minimum of material and social inequalities for the good of ourselves and our groups”, however, this was only due to the fact that everyone had just the basic necessities for survival and no more than that.  Once an agrarian society made it possible for some to be more successful at accumulating goods and material wealth than others, the situation changed. Social inequality became a social reality. Today experts– psychologists and philosophers, not economists –contend that: “material stratification, economic competition and increasingly strict control of access have become the norm. The bottom line is that we are at a point where from here on out there is always going to be some inequality in human societies…”

As I argued in my analysis of the iconic Italian film by director Lina Wertmüller, “The Seduction of Mimi”, one of the factors that eventually led to the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union was precisely that Marx didn’t give human nature its due. Perhaps out of an overdeveloped sense of optimism and idealism, Marx did not acknowledge that human beings have a strong sense of self-interest. This drive to emerge, excel and out-distance his fellow human beings is what made survival possible. What’s more, as we see in the film, when Mimi becomes a father this drive is intensified, as he wishes to give his son every advantage to succeed in life, and raw individualism overcomes his political ideology and even concern for his fellow human beings.

This latter point is of the utmost importance if we consider it on a societal level, as it explains—at least in part– the psychological impetus of generational uplift. We scramble in the race to accumulate wealth, privilege and status symbols to pass on to our children; a race that in a city such as New York  may be even more obvious and brutal than elsewhere.  Except for a very few human beings who choose self-sacrifice and altruism as their priorities, the rest of us do not wish to work harder than our neighbors for the same rewards. Any comprehensive discussion on the eradication of social inequality must take this into account.

Although I realize that not every conference can address all the issues embedded in such a vast topic, I would have liked to see at least a nod to the philosophical-psychological nexus of the issue. So, is there a disconnect on the subject between psychologists/human behaviorists and policy analysts and economists? Let’s be clear about this. Do these experts really aim to eradicate inequality and poverty as their symposia claim, or are we still only talking about reducing these scourges?

 

 

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