History’s Take on the Moral Hazards of Inequality

 “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

George Santayana.

Once Upon a Time . . .

Long, long ago, humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They barely managed to make anything beyond subsistence levels. Plus, they had to share their possessions. The end result: they did not leave behind much for their sons or daughters.

What changed things decisively was the transformation from wandering pastorals to settled, farming-based life. Now, humans produced extra material goods and had more to pass on to their successors. Thus began the perpetuation of inequality across generations. In the second article, we have seen how inequity originates when someone earns more than the average and how the rich get richer as the poor get poorer.

Milking Cows in Ancient Egypt
Milking Cows in Ancient Egypt

Immorality creates inequality. Pronounced inequity arouses unrest, which, left unchecked, can descend into cultural destruction. Chaos spurred by inequity played a definitive role in bringing down the Romans, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites, Mayans, and Incas. The same inequity provoked turbulence in Sudan, Burundi, and Bahrain. And, it teamed up with resource paucity to foment civil war in Syria.

There’s another dimension to inequality. It is called environmental degradation. Mother Nature supplies us with all resources, of which the elites control and consume more than their fair share. The rest are terrified there isn’t enough left, a feeling that inspires insecurity and, eventually, unrest. The turmoil is, in fact, a mad scramble for scant resources.

And with Climate Change making its presence brutally felt, resources are dwindling rapidly, adding fuel to the already raging fire of uncertainty. The ecological imbalance has at least partially disintegrated the Easter Island, Classic Lowland Maya, Angkor Wat, Soviet Union, Zaire, and Yugoslavia cultures.

But if the conflict is a squabble over resources, can it not be controlled with fair resource distribution? Well, yes and no. As we shall see, during the early stages of a civilization, resource allocation is somewhat principled. Over time, things take a turn for the worse and culminate into discord. The answer lies in the reasonable allotment and responsible use of resources. Easier said than done, for sharing is a lot tougher than owning.

The Bare Necessities of Civilization

In order to survive and thrive, a civilization has to strike a balance between the following elements:

  • Strong Moral or Religious Foundation: that binds society together;
  • Optimum Population Levels: for production of goods and services;
  • Surplus Resource Levels / Production Capacity: ensuring there is more than enough for its population;
  • Centralized Government Mechanism: that channelizes resources and provides governance via tax collection, infrastructure creation, and offering protection;
  • Fair-Minded Division of Labour between Leaders and Workers: wherein leaders command the respect of workers and can motivate them towards greater efficiency and, when necessary, sacrifice; and
  • Atmosphere that Promotes Innovative Problem Solving: because innovation thrusts a civilization miles ahead of others.

Moral foundation is, by far, the most important. People listen only to leaders with ample moral authority. If the nation is at war, the situation demands all sections of society to unite. Say, the leaders appeal to people to enlist for military service and donate money. Common people agree to such pleadings only if the leaders have made similar sacrifices. And, if the leaders have ‘ethically compelled’ the elites to make identical contributions. In the absence of moral force, all hell breaks loose.

Rise & Fall

Liberty produces wealth and wealth destroys liberty.

Henry Demarest Lloyd

The road which numerous civilizations have taken from rising to fall is very much alike. They usually start by freeing themselves from some sort of subjugation. The ensuing climate of free thought and openness promotes innovation and development, thereby creating wealth. And this is when the ground normally starts falling from under the feet! Few feel it though.

Political Marginalization Triggered the Sudan Civil Wars
Political Marginalization Triggered the Sudan Civil Wars    Image Courtesy of Rune Eraker at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SPLA_Second_Sudan_Civil_War_01.png

Affluence makes people, fist the elite and then the commoners, move beyond luxuries and seek carnal pleasures. Materialism, greed, laziness, and selfishness pick up as people start regarding sex and violence as a kind of liberation. The fall of morals is slow and insidious, exactly why society does not sense it.

Common people often imitate the elite. Why? Because lifestyles of the super-rich are seen as habits of successful people. The elite has enough clout to coerce governments into providing legal (but amoral) tax breaks and other concessions. And, the more unequal a society is, the more the laws favor the rich. The common people replicate such lobbying by ganging up along racial, religious, caste, sectarian or other lines to demand free lunches – unfairly of course. And there begins the mindless rush for resources.

By now, governments are remarkably corrupt and fragile. What is more, they have irrevocably surrendered their moral authority and have to appease everyone. This disturbs the delicate balance in the bare necessities of civilizations. With revenues so squandered in mollifying everyone, governments have little left to protect their citizens. Collapse is only a matter of time. Sometimes, civilizations repeatedly recover from the brink of total catastrophe before failing completely.

Speaking of the ecological dimension, imitation of the top brass also takes the form of extravagance. The filthy rich often flaunt their ‘possessions’ – mansions, luxury cars, jets, yachts, and extramarital relationships. Likewise, common folk takes to buying unnecessary things. And since nature provides all resources, such indulgence breeds severe ecological imbalance.

Emissions are a good way to measure consumption. The more you consume, the more you emit. Globally, the top 10% elite emit around half the total greenhouse gases. And with commoners following the moguls, emissions rise thereby aggravating Climate Change. This further depletes resources making the resource rush harsher. Alas, we are blinded by materialism to feel it!

In the first article, we started with BREXIT and Trump victory, at the core of which was inequity rising due to immigration. While not bad in itself, immigration can disturb the delicate balance between the civilization’s essential elements. One, it makes labor cheap and upsets the fair division of labor. With the leaders hiring cheap, immigrant labor, local workers start questioning the morality of their leaders. Not that the locals are paragons of virtue.

Next, uncontrolled immigration can escalate populations beyond the optimum levels, thereby lowering the required surplus apart from overloading infrastructure. Most importantly, it can entrench us versus they mindset, particularly if the immigrants’ religious-cultural beliefs run contrary to those of the locals’. Sectarian outlook gets fortified precisely when the need of the hour is broad-mindedness.

The Multiple Facets of Inequality

“War begins in the minds of the people.”

Atharvaveda, ancient Indian text

Inequality is a multi-faced coin with economic, social, cultural, and political aspects. Professor Frances Stewart breaks down inequity as:

  • Economic Inequality: related to income, employment, and control over assets – natural, financial, human, and social.
  • Political Inequity: covers disparities in control over army, police, and institutions at the national, provincial, and local levels.
  • Social Inequality: considers access to education, housing, and healthcare.
  • Cultural Inequity: based on differences in language, customs, and religion.

Prof. Stewart points out that inequity is more likely to precipitate violent strife when cultural differences are more or less along economic and political fault lines. The civil war in Burundi (1993-2005) sprung from an intense political rivalry between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, both having separate cultures.

Senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Gudrun Ostby has similarly demonstrated how social inequity matters more than its economic counterpart. Policies in Burundi deliberately limited the number of Hutu students and teachers before clashes erupted.

Massive Protest Rally in Bahrain 
Massive Protest Rally in Bahrain                                        Image Courtesy of Football at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:March_of_9_March_by_Korah_5.jpg

Political violence specialist, Jok Maduk Jok demonstrates the connection between the Sudan civil wars and the Arab North’s conscious political marginalization of the Christian South. Dr. Seth Kaplan likewise relates the 2012 Bahrain unrest to the Sunni elite politically sidelining the Shiites.

Perhaps, people look at those with different social, cultural, and political identities as outsiders. This explains why these inequalities matter more than plain economic inequity, the root cause of the issue. This also explains why mobilizing people for conflict is simpler by linking economic and political exclusion with cultural or social discrimination.

Take the curious case of Syria, where many of these facets joined forces to spark the civil war. The population had expanded before the drought hit hard in the late 2000s. Climate Change combined with policies that withdrew water subsidies at the height of the drought worsened conditions. Farming declined, forcing many, particularly unemployed youth, to migrate to cities. It did not take long for the presence of such frustrated and desperate youth to ignite ethnic tensions when limited urban resources were already stretched to the breaking point. Civil war broke out in 2011.

Morality Goes Before the Fall

Civilizations cave in via slow or sudden conquest by external powers. Or, they descend into anarchy. In all three scenarios, morals break down before the final crash. And so does pride – Rome’s last aristocrats had to swallow their arrogance and queue up for the Pope’s grants while Mayan nobility ate humble pie – the food of the commoners!

Insightful leaders who trace the source of the clash can stem the rot through strong and creative stewardship. And this is perhaps what sometimes brings cultures back from the edge of destruction. Although terribly tough, dealing with such situations is not impossible. History bears testimony to this, another side as well!

Indrajeetsinh Yadav @ Falcon Words has composed this article. Keep following us at our blog for more such illuminating content. Falcon Words offers sterling content on Academic topics, History, Environment, Economics, and Finance. Write to us at info@falconwords.com or call us at +91-9822052945 for further details.

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