The Chimera of Inequality

We hear it a lot more these days – the word inequality. It has become the panacea by which people – both rich and poor; powerful and weak – pretend to express their solidarity with those less fortunate. “It’s not about money” they insist, “it’s really about its distribution. There’s plenty for everybody” they go on, “if only there was just less inequality;” the word spoken with sufficient heartfelt drawl that the assertion leaves no room for challenge.

They then turn their lazy eye upon the villain – capitalism and the capitalist countries – ostensibly because we have more. They rail against corporate pay; the desperately poor making common cause with the accidentally rich in denouncing tycoons and masters of industry or those who have built for themselves great wealth. They lobby for central plans which – at the point of a gun – take from some to give to others; with the only real beneficiaries being the intermediaries of this theft.

The truth is that this analysis is the result of tunnel vision and a stunning lack of retrospection.

I recently returned from a trip to Vienna – where I spent the evenings wandering through the old parts of town; passing in front of the palaces and churches and mansions of the imperial overlords of old. Massive structures of arrogant opulence built not by those who created but by those who believed that their condition of birth gave them the right to take. Wealth seized for the few at the expense of the masses. That world was a world of inequality.

Most of us forget that in the past wealth was always obtained by the subjugation of others or the theft of their goods. All the elites in the empires of old built their fortunes by taking land, enslaving peasants, and sacking the bounty of wealthy neighbors. Inequality was said to be ordained by God and preserved by blue blood and one’s condition at birth.

Capitalism changed all this.

Now these old places, once the frolicking ground of privilege, are museums and tourist attractions for the pleasure of those of us who in the past would have been vassals; men who have finally become lords not of others but of our own destinies, empowered by capitalism.

Capitalism has allowed people to become tremendously wealthy simply through dedicated service to others. Figure out what they like to eat, what they like to read, what the like to wear, what they like to listen to, how they prefer to spend their vacations – and fulfill their wishes with your best and most ingenious efforts. Make their lives easier and they will gladly and freely hand you tremendous wealth. This simple idea spurred the industrial revolution which brought the greatest advancement in terms of quality of life in human history. It heralded the building of new empires – empires of the mind that were as powerful and as fragile as each subsequent idea. Empires that required only the voluntary participation of others – built upon service to them. And it created a bounty that tricked down to create the greatest middle class the world has ever known.

This is the capitalism that those who complain about inequality attack. Not understanding the source of equality, and wealth, they pull a bait and switch by attacking the solution as the problem. And worse, so much worse, those who seek political power to rule – not economic power by service – use the chimera of inequality to justify their power grab.  And in doing so, they create yet another nobility. Their cynicism knowing no bounds, they call for a new class of overlords who seek to rule by controlling those ‘capitalists’ who produce. And not content to simply control, they demand the consent of the victim – those men of the mind who are forced to acknowledge that this control is in fact for the public good; because it is the public that must be protected against them – against those who serve. 

To be sure this does not mean that things are going swimmingly. The increasingly oligarchical nature of western society – as the economic becomes commingled with the political – is creating such inequalities that it is threatening to return the world to a time of lords and serfs, of nobles and vassals. In other countries the process has already been completed – and the poor have again been permanently cemented in their misery.  Now is the time for the men of courage to stand and carefully explain that the solution to this challenge, like most solutions, comes not from what those who seek political power say; but instead from principals firmly grounded in history and economics. The solution comes not with less capitalism, but with greater freedom, greater creativity and greater opportunity which are sure to create greater prosperity. But in order for this to work, we must trust the spontaneous order that governs human interactions and believe that the disaggregated benefits of people seeking to prosper by serving each other will lead to the greater good.

And for those of us who object to falling prey to the chimera of inequality, let it be known that it is not because we are children of privilege. We do not hate the poor; we do not idolize the oligarchies old and new. It is in fact for the opposite reason that we dissent. Those of us who are not men with loud last names and long lineages know the only way to our own advancement and the alleviation of poverty, and most often the only way we can defend ourselves, is our stalwart adherence to the values and institutions of a free society. 

Because it is we – more than anybody else – who have everything to lose if we do not.
Joel D. Hirst is a novelist, author of “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio” (and in Spanish “El Teniente de San Porfirio: Cronica de una Revolucion Bolivariana“) – as well as the upcoming sequel “The Burning of San Porfirio”

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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6 Responses to The Chimera of Inequality

  1. Why has inequality grown in countries were neoliberal economics policies have been implemented? How can this form of de-regulated capitalism be the supposed solution and not the problem if it increases levels of inequality? Once again I admire your gumption but do you genuinely believe what you write? How do you cope with the levels of cognitive dissonance that this must create for you?

    More equal societies such as Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden (which are also very economically successful by any metric you might chose to use, no beer shortages here) outperform less equal countries such as the US, Portugal and the UK on almost every metric of social wellbeing (health, education, crime rates) What is interesting is that even the richest members of these societies have lower levels of mental health problems or fear of crime for example. Even the richest live for longer and have higher levels of trust. Everybody benefits from living in a more equal society, from the poorest to the richest. Once you’ve seen the facts its very difficult to argue against.

    If you haven’t read the spirit level you really should. The evidence is there:

    What are the characteristic features of more equal countries? A selection of the following; progressive taxation where the rich pay a significantly higher proportion of their income (something that Adam Smith himself was in favour of) than the poor, controls on earning differentials, higher levels of spending on welfare, social emancipation, wealth redistribution, high levels of productivity and social inclusion.


    • Eve Stevens says:

      I don’t think I agree with you. I have no idea of the equality of Japanese society. Japan did very well for 1 or 2 decades. Then there was the lost generation. There have been a few more since. Still the people have money and live well. But they live in a Japanese only society. Only a few non Japanese are allowed to move there. There will always be less bullying in a homogeneous society
      Sweden built its wealth through capitalism. Until 1950 Sweden was a very poor county. In the 90’s they became more socialist which is I think your claim for equality. They are changing back now. Still Norway, Finland and Sweden have been homogeneous societies. I will be interesting to see how it plays out now that they are not homogeneous anymore. Take Norway off the list because they are not an EU member and do not have to accept the levels of immigration the other EU counties do.
      I agree that education is key. Japanese parents insist that their children do well in school. I assume parents in Sweden, Norway and Finland do also. Again, it will be interesting to see if the children of the immigrants do as well.
      So far, I have a homogeneous society, good parenting and a good education as being more important than pay equality to economic success.


  2. Olly Biggs says:

    There are some very wealthy countries that are very economically unequal, the United States being the most obvious example. My point is that more economically equal countries with smaller income differentials are also economically successful but have far, far better social outcomes for everybody living within those societies. That is why the arguments being put forward by the author of this piece are frankly ridiculous.

    Yes Japan has had a period of economic stagnation but it is still one of the richest countries in the world. Who wouldn’t want to live in one of these societies? hate to break it to people but the cold war is over. Its not about capitalism versus socialism, we live in a global capitalist economic system after all, every country in the world (with very few exceptions) has a largely capitalist economy. What we are actually talking about is the degree of government intervention in these capitalist economies because actually markets cannot exist without the state which provides the necessary infrastructure, guarantees property rights, prevents abuses and provides a legal system to name but a few important roles. What we are talking about here is whether government’s (of countries with capitalist economies) adopt a range of policies which help to keep levels of economic inequality relatively small, or adopt the kind of laissez-faire policies of deregulation the author is advocating and which allow economic inequality to soar.

    Children in less economically unequal societies do better educationally. Levels of teenage pregnancy are lower, levels of crime and mental illness are lower. Being a good parent is not just a matter of ‘insisting’ that your children do well. It requires not only being able to have the money to look after your children and feed them properly, but is also much easier to do if you (or they) haven’t been incarcerated, aren’t suffering from mental illness and if your children aren’t already parents themselves! So good parenting and education may be important drivers of economic success but more children are likely to receive good parenting and a good education in a less economically unequal society. Its actually common sense.

    As for the homogeneity of a society having an important role to play in economic success? I think that can be challenged pretty easily. The United states of America is the richest country in the world and is the product of wave after wave of immigration, from Europe initially and more recently from all over the world. There are a number of countries in the developing world (Germany being one) where the birth-rate has fallen to a level where the population would no be able to reproduce itself if it were not for immigration. With raging populations, immigration is fundamentally important for economic growth, as immigrants tend to be young and economically active. The following is an article on how immigration has revived the economy of Malmo which was struggling after the death of the shipbuilding industry there.

    Its probably also worth pointing out there are more than one way of lowering economic inequality other than pay equality. Progressive taxation (where the rich pay higher levels of tax) and a progressive benefits system (where benefits are redistributed to those on lower incomes) is another way of doing this as are job creation schemes to get the unemployed into work. The OECD has pointed out that if done correctly these policies don’t have any negative impact on growth. In fact, because lower levels of economic inequality improves social outcomes (health, education etc) they can actually stimulate economic growth. This is why the more economically equal countries I listed are also economically successful!


  3. Reblogged this on Joel D. Hirst's Blog and commented:

    I thought I’d reblog an old article I wrote two years ago. More relevant today than ever: “Most of us forget that in the past wealth was always obtained by the subjugation of others or the theft of their goods. All the elites in the empires of old built their fortunes by taking land, enslaving peasants, and sacking the bounty of wealthy neighbors. Inequality was said to be ordained by God and preserved by blue blood and one’s condition at birth.

    Capitalism changed all this. “


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