Early last year one of my academic colleagues emailed me with an update about conditions in the UK today being worse than the Black Death which killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. Because inequality. This was in the aftermath of news headlines announcing the advent of tough times ahead: ‘UK workers set for worst pay growth decade since the Napoleonic Wars.’
From the Napoleonic Wars it is only a short step to arrive at the plague. Obviously being wiped out by a plague spread by nasty flea-infested rats would be preferable to being forced to tolerate modern economic conditions where the CEO earns 350 terms your salary.
I was reminded of this conversation when I read the introduction to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Great book, google it).
The attractive thing about such dark visions is that they sound intelligent, clued up, switched on, and very ‘of the moment’. Ill news is hard-hitting and it always sounds true and compelling, which makes for great headlines. The grimmer it is, the more likely that people will believe it. Entire organisations have been set up to trace and measure how bad things are, and anybody who is not bemoaning the dark times we live in is assumed to be a bit thick or maybe just uninformed. I suppose it has always been true that bad news shifts the dailies and so nobody wants to write a report about the slow and steady growth of progress when instead they could write about the shocking rise in executive pay. But ‘doom and gloom’ is not the only intelligent way to understand the world:
I have some sympathy with the colleague who warned me about plague conditions in the UK and I wouldn't call him 'wrong wrong couldn't-be-more-wrong' because that would be a bit rude. Also, I know that many smart people are 100% focused on ‘injustice’ or ‘unfairness’ and therefore the only facts they care about are facts which show how unequal the world is. When you are driven by fear of the future, you have to focus on the thing you're afraid of and you can't afford to be distracted by the good things going on around you because there's a risk that you might unwittingly end up being happy when everybody knows that being angry about unfairness is better than being happy. This is why many fearful folk view non-equality related facts (e.g. facts about progress and economic growth) as 100% irrelevant when it comes to politics and policy-making.
I do get this – human suffering is a difficult thing to respond to if you are in charge of running a country or making the laws that govern a country or if you feel called by your conscience to right the injustices of the world. The unfairness of the human condition is also a tricky thing to master intellectually as there are so many opposing claims and they all sound plausible. I have no doubt that perceptions of suffering are real and may be ameliorated even by fake, unworkable solutions - this is why placebos are effective. There's no point trying to reason with someone who feels that they are in pain, and it is much better to offer a 'remedy' regardless of whether it 'works'. So the suffering people experience today from living in an unequal world could easily, in their own perception, feel just as bad and even worse than the suffering experienced by someone in a 14th century village wiped out by the plague.
It is difficult to completely understand that way of thinking, especially for anybody who knows about the Eyam plague - the human suffering and sacrifice experienced by the villagers in that tragedy. How can anyone think that having billionaires amongst us, going about dripping with diamonds while we struggle to meet our daily expenses, is the same (or even worse) level of suffering as the plague? Of course, the human experience of suffering is not always rational and I suppose the plague at least attacked everyone equally without fear or favour so that anyone who caught it, whether King or peasant, stood an equal chance of dying from it whereas today access to healthcare is unequal and therefore unfair.
If you view fairness as the most important thing in life, and you have devoted your entire life’s energy to ensuring that everything in the world is fair, then the 'postcode lottery' will make you discount all the benefits of modern medicine. Who cares about penicillin when your neighbour in a different postcode is getting 'free' [editor: tax payer funded] treatments on the NHS that you can't get with your own postcode? If that's your way of thinking then Pinker’s book will sound like a plastic toy Polly Anna rattling about in a can for the amusement of those not yet old enough to grasp the scale of suffering imposed on the 99% of poor people by the 1% of rich people who have private healthcare anyway so they don't care about the suffering of others who rely on their postcode for succour.
The ethos of enlightenment and progress requires, in the first place, a whole different mindset and way of understanding the world. It is thus appropriate that Pinker begins his study with a question someone asked him about the meaning of life: “Why should I live?”
That is the right question to begin with. Life must have meaning in an individual sense, by internal reference to your own self, in order to put what other people are doing and what’s going on externally around you into proper perspective, namely to realize that how other people are living or what they are earning is completely irrelevant as a measure of the meaning of your own life. If you believe that ‘inequality’ or the comparison between yourself and your neighbours, is the most important way to measure the quality and value and meaning of your own life, that would not just be 'wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong', but tragic.
If you focus on inequality as a measure of how good your life is, then the only way to know whether you are happy or not is to first check out your neighbour, and see whether he is enjoying some advantages that are not available to you or getting attention and favours that you are not able to get. Your life is then lived and valued only by reference to what other people have. You start by getting very angry about people who have more than you, or access to things closed off to you, because how unfair is that. Before long, you actually find yourself feeling envious of 14th century peasants, because even though they were falling about like skittles ridden with the plague at least they were not surrounded by 1% billionaires and so they had no inequality to make them unhappy.
Worst of all, if you are a banner waving 99%er from a rich country moaning about the 1% in your country who are oppressing you by being so rich, what will you do when you discover that to a poor third world kleptocratic country YOU are part of the problem because your entire country is oppressing his entire country by having the temerity to be richer and more productive? You might be a noble 99% social justice warrior with impeccable liberal credentials in your own rich country, but in global terms you are an evil 1%er because no matter how 'poor' you are, you are richer than 99% of the world's people. There are people in the world so poor that they have only rags to wear, a tin shack to live in, and all they have to eat every day is a single meal made of watery soup with a few scraggly peas and carrots floating about. Oh dear, what now? How shall we go about embracing the whole world in the great redistribution project? Because when you start equalising everything, it will never end until the whole world has been equalised and that would be a very sinister state of affairs.
The world would be a freer and safer and happier place if people would abandon the dream of producing equality of all things. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not life, liberty and the pursuit of 'equality'.
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