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The Anatomy of Inequality: How Political Philosophy Has Dealt With the Age-Old Problem of Inequality

Can political philosophy help us understand the story of inequality—and of equality?

people inequality
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / Ai825

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Anatomy of Inequality by Per Molander (Melville House, 2016): 

Inequality has followed humankind throughout history. It has left traces everywhere, which are excavated and examined by archeologists.

A Sumerian hymn from Nippur, written in cuneiform and translated in 1951, extols the goddess Nanshe:

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Who knows the orphan, who knows the widow,

knows the oppression of man over man, is the orphan’s mother,

Nanshe, who cares for the widow,

who seeks out justice for the poorest.

The queen brings the refugee to her lap,

finds shelter for the weak.

This fragment is four thousand years old, making it one of the oldest documents known to us. It speaks of oppression, of orphans and widows as representatives of oppressed groups. It also conveys a restrained discontent about the state of things—the text has a moral sounding box.

But it is not unique. The following lines, taken from a stele erected for an Egyptian bureaucrat at the start of the second millennium bce, praise the same virtues:

I was collected, kind, merciful,

who quieted the weeper with a kind word.

[. . .]

I was generous, open-handed,

a lord of provisions, free from neglect.

I was a friend to the little,

sweet of charm to the have-not.

I was the carer of the hungry who was without goods,

open-handed to the poor.

Here again is an ancient account of inequality—and of an ethical norm that counterbalances it.

It was only in the 1900s that we began to approach an ideal of reasonable equality—universal suffrage, equality under the law (in principle), respect for personal integrity and fundamental material security. But this only applied to some parts of the world, and even then, the West saw a number of notable lapses into despotism that reversed this progress. Human history is essentially a history of inequality.

This degree of historical consistency over time—the omnipresence of inequality—warrants an explanation. But so does inequality’s shadow: for millennia, the benchmark of equality has loomed just as large, if more abstractly, and it, too, deserves to be investigated. After all, the authors of the early accounts above were not only reacting to their surroundings—thousands of years ago, like many of their descendants today, they had a vision of a different society.

Can political philosophy help us understand the story of inequality—and of equality? Political philosophy explores what makes a good society. There are essentially three ways to pursue this philosophical inquiry. One approach—a relatively lazy one—is to use the status quo as a starting point and to discuss how best to manage it. A philosopher might then suggest some marginal changes to society, all of which would stem from the current state. Niccolo` Machiavelli and David Hume are exponents of this philosophical method.

Another method is to begin with a sketch of a society, neither arguing for nor against various alternatives. The Laws of Manu, which outlines the Indian caste system, and Plato’s Republic are examples from this tradition. These are not strictly works of political philosophy, however, because they avoid the question of how the proposed solution will gain legitimacy. Instead, they simply make reference to some historical mystery or shadow. Some more recent examples are Thomas More’s Utopia, Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, and Robert Owen’s A New View of Society. The common feature of these blueprints is their level of detail: there are rules and regulations for all of life’s eventualities, and even forays into urban planning.

The third and more purely philosophical tradition aims to first define rights and freedoms and then to establish, on this basis, a legitimate foundation for political power. In one of the most important traditions, creating a society is presented as a social contract in which a group of people give up some of their individual freedoms in order to share in the fruits of the community. The philosophical discussion, then, is about the terms of this contract.

No actual historical situation is described when employing this model of thought, even if there have been a few situations that have come close to resembling it. Nonetheless, it possesses a key strength: it clears the table of historical inheritance and other contingencies in order to discuss the terms from a perspective that, at the very least, has an egalitarian starting point, even if there is no guarantee of an egalitarian result. This approach is intellectually appealing; contract theories have been published at a fairly steady rate from classical antiquity to modern times. The first contributions come from the Greek philosophers, such as the Epicureans, the Cynics, and the Stoics—approaches that were systematized in the first century bce by Lucretius in his work On the Nature of Things. During the Middle Ages, the concept was given a Christian framework by Manegold of Lautenbach and Nicholas of Cusa. Marsilius of Padua was bold enough to discuss contracts in non-religious terms, and in doing so, he was far ahead of his time. Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes were still writing within a religious framework in the 1600s, even if it was quite clear that to them God was an unnecessary hypothesis, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s analysis of the social contract presaged the French Revolution.

The work of Hobbes and Rousseau provoked liberal responses. This was classical liberalism, rather than social liberalism, and its proponents—Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and others—did not write in terms of a social contract. Indeed, contemporary heirs to the tradition, such as Friedrich von Hayek, have declared their contempt for the concept as a whole. Still, their thoughts about society often revolve around a kind of ideal constitution—one of von Hayek’s more prominent works is titled The Constitution of Liberty—so the approach is present, if unwittingly.

Although the idea of a social contract lost some of its appeal, particularly when it came under the scrutiny of conservative and right-leaning liberal critics, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice gave it new life during the 1970s, and when Robert Nozick launched a counterattack with Anarchy, State, and Utopia a few years later, he also argued using contractual terms, even though the content of his contract differed from that of Rawls’s.

The social contract as a figure of thought has been with us for more than two thousand years, and clearly, it is here to stay.

A remarkable amount of political philosophy has been written without the involvement of social scientists. This is a rather strange fact. If you take it upon yourself to discuss how people’s relationships should be regulated in the political realm—whether that takes the form of a social contract or a constitution—the knowledge of how people actually behave in various situations should be key to any inquiry. Because politics by and large is about the division of a society’s immaterial and material resources—and because any overview of the history of humankind cannot help but leave one with the overwhelming impression that these resources have been inequitably divided—the most reasonable starting point for a discussion is an analysis of the mechanisms of inequality. Then the central question becomes “Why are all societies unequal?”

A logical follow-up question that naturally emerges from this first one is: “Can inequality be politically influenced?” Conservatives often assert that precisely because inequality is a common trait of nearly every society, one should perhaps avoid trying to influence the distribution of life chances, incomes, and assets. Yet this is a hasty conclusion to draw. Even if inequality cannot be eliminated, the level of inequality and its structure and degree might be open to political influence, and in this way, be kept within reasonable bounds.

A third question is how the main alternatives described in the classical ideologies—liberalism, conservatism, socialism—address inequality as a phenomenon. An ideology, after all, is a kind of map that helps us orient ourselves on the political landscape. If, then, inequality is one of the fundamental problems in politics, a critical assessment of how it is described and influenced within these ideological frameworks is essential if one wants to determine their validity.