Friday, July 25, 2014

Olsen's Criticisms: The Utopian Left and the Denial of Human Nature

A fundamental claim of my argument for Darwinian conservatism--as combining traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism--is that Darwinian science supports the constrained or realist view of human nature as fixed that is embraced by conservatism, as opposed to the unconstrained or utopian view of human nature as malleable that is embraced by the Left. 

Olsen says that I am arguing here against a straw man, because even if the Marxist Left can be rightly identified as utopian in its denial of human nature, the social democratic Left cannot.  But while the Marxist Left is more aggressively utopian in its denial of human nature, I would argue, the social democratic Left is still utopian in assuming that human nature can be changed in the pursuit of human perfectibility.

Marxism is the purest expression of leftist utopianism, in that Marx assumed that once human beings enter the social environment of communism, they will become utterly selfless in their collectivist solidarity, and society will be organized on the principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  The failure of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other Marxist regimes taught many leftists that this utopian vision is a foolish and dangerous fantasy.

And yet, the welfare state program embraced by the social democratic Left is utopian in its own way, because it assumes a malleability of human nature that is denied by Darwinian science.  Consider, for example, five assumptions about human malleability that are implicit in the modern welfare state.  (Here I am making some of the same points that Charles Murray makes in Coming Apart [2012].) 

The first assumption is that people will not respond in selfish ways to the incentives created by the welfare state.  For example, that poor people will not work less when they can make themselves eligible for generous unemployment benefits; and that rich people will not engage in tax avoidance and evasion to avoid the confiscatory tax rates necessary for redistributing their wealth.

The second assumption is that all human beings are equal in their innate talents and character traits.  If this is true, then a society that provides a fair equality of opportunity will produce the same outcomes for all groups of people--such as men and women, blacks and whites, poor people and rich people.  So when the outcomes are not the same for all groups, that must be assumed to be the consequence of some unfair discrimination that must be overturned by governmental intervention.

The third assumption is that human beings are not responsible for their actions.  Those who do well do not deserve their success, because it was due to some undeserved advantages.  And those who do poorly do not deserve their failure, because it was due to some undeserved disadvantages.  This provides moral justification for confiscating most of the property of the rich--Thomas Piketty recommends tax rates of 80% to 90% for the richest people--and for never holding people responsible for their failures.

The fourth assumption is that those who manage the welfare state--politicians and bureaucrats--will do so for the common good and not for their own selfish interests.

The fifth assumption is that the coercive welfare state is absolutely necessary for solving social problems, because if people were left free and held responsible to solve their social problems for themselves and their families in voluntary cooperation with others, they would fail, because they lack the natural ability or inclination to do this.

A biological science of human nature denies these five assumptions.

 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Olsen's Criticisms: Religion and Cosmic Teleology

Olsen has a long chapter on how some of my critics--such as John West, Carson Holloway, and Richard Hassing--have criticized me for defending a Darwinian natural right that is not grounded in religious belief and cosmic teleology (247-82).  He suggests that my argument cannot be persuasive if I cannot answer these criticisms.  Since he never mentions any of my many responses to West, Holloway, and Hassing, he leaves the reader with the impression that I cannot answer their criticisms.

In fact, I have answered them many times--in "Vindicating Darwinian Conservatism" in Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question (222-45), in "Defending Darwinian Natural Right" in Interpretation (spring 2000), and in many blog posts.

I have made four arguments on these issues.  First, I have argued in defense of Darwin's adoption of the idea of "dual causality."  The religious belief in God as the "primary cause" of everything is compatible with the scientific study of the "secondary causes" of natural evolution. 

Second, I have argued that the Darwinian scientist can accept the importance of religious belief in the cultural evolution of human morality.  Darwin was explicit in recognizing religious belief in moral evolution.

Third, I have argued that although religion can support morality, our evolved morality can stand on its own natural ground.  That's important, because we sometimes need to correct those religious beliefs that violate our natural moral sense.  Otherwise, we would be trapped in a divine command theory of morality that would make it impossible for us to question religious beliefs that are morally dubious.

Fourth, I have argued that we do not need a cosmic teleology as long as we can ground natural right in the immanent teleology of human biological nature.

Olsen has not explained why he thinks these arguments fail.

Olsen's Criticisms: The Interpersonal Dimension and Human Rights

Olsen writes:  "Despite his strong emphasis on the natural basis in our evolved psychology for various types of care and concern for others, Arnhart in fact utterly fails to make room in his theory for any genuinely interpersonal perspective in ethics" (191).

This makes no sense to me.  If I strongly emphasize the naturalness of our care and concern for others, which is true, then how can it be true that I make no room for the interpersonal perspective in ethics?

I am also perplexed by Olsen's claim that I say nothing about how Darwinian natural right might apply to "issues that are at least remotely controversial in liberal democracies today" (195).  He then goes on to criticize me for not recognizing that Darwinian natural right could illuminate the current debate over the foundations of human rights (196-98).

In fact, throughout Darwinian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, various articles, and many blog posts, I have discussed many contemporary issues, including human rights.  Olsen says that the debates over slavery and female genital mutilation are no longer controversies today.  But the point of my account of the debates over slavery and female genital mutilation was to show how the appeal to human rights is an appeal to human nature (see Darwinian Natural Right, 157-59).  And to say that female genital mutilation is not controversial today is strange, given the intense debate today across Europe and North America as to whether parents have the right to cut the genitals of their daughters and the debate as to whether parents in Africa and the Middle East have a cultural right to do this.  Just yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new policy to prosecute cases of female genital mutilation in England and Wales.  But Olsen insists that this is not a contemporary issue.  I have written about these current controversies here and here.

I have written extensively about human rights in various posts here, here, and here.  Olsen endorses Alan Dershowitz's argument for how we derive "rights from wrongs" (196-97).  He does not mention my post analyzing and supporting Dershowitz's argument.  Olsen refers to Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach" to human rights (197).  He does not mention that I cite Nussbaum's reasoning as compatible with my account of natural desires (Darwinian Natural Right, 30).

In my blog posts, I have commented on many contemporary issues--including abortion, gay marriage, transhumanism, the stem cell research debate, and genetic engineering. 

Would Olsen say that such issues are not "remotely controversial in liberal democracies today"?

Olsen's Criticisms: The Naturalistic Fallacy and Emotivism

Olsen accuses me of committing the naturalistic fallacy (18-19, 154-55, 180-81,184-86, 190-91, 193-95).  I have written a long series of blog posts--a dozen or more--responding to this objection.  Olsen is totally silent about what I have said, so I have no way to know what he thinks is wrong with my response.  My most recent post on this was published a few months ago, and it contains links to the many previous posts published during the time that Olsen was writing his dissertation.

In everything we do, I have argued, we move from "is" to "ought" through some hypothetical imperative in which "ought" means a hypothetical relationship between desires and ends.  For example, "If you desire to be healthy, then you ought to eat nutritious food."  Or, "If you desire safe air travel, you ought to seek out air planes that are engineered for flying without crashing."  Or, "If you desire the love of friends, you ought to cultivate personal relationships based on mutual respect and affection and shared interests."

Such hypothetical imperatives are based on two kinds of objective facts.  First, human desires are objective facts.  We can empirically discover--through common experience or through scientific investigation--that human beings generally desire self-preservation, health, and friendship.  Second, the causal connection between behavior and result is an objective fact about the world.  We can empirically discover that through eating good food, flying on safe air planes, and cultivating close personal relationships, we can achieve the ends that we desire.  For studying these objective facts, the natural sciences of medicine, engineering, and psychology can be instructive.  It is false, therefore, to say that science cannot tell us anything about the way things ought to be.

We can restate this in Aristotelian terms--as suggested by Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:  If you want to live a happy or flourishing life, if you want to have a deep and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole, then you need to cultivate the moral and intellectual virtues that are instrumental to achieving deep and lasting satisfactions in life.  A science of ethics can study the empirical claims of such a hypothetical imperative.

Olsen might respond by saying that even if science can tell us about the ought of a hypothetical imperative, it cannot tell us about the ought of a moral imperative, which must be categorical rather than hypothetical.  But this would ignore the fact that if a categorical imperative is to have any motivating truth, it must become a hypothetical imperative.  So when Kant or some other moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why?  And ultimately the only final answer to that question of motivation is that obeying this ought is what we most desire to do if we are rational and sufficiently informed.

Even Kant implicitly concedes this.  In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he says that everyone desires to obey his categorical imperatives, because everyone--"even the most hardened scoundrel"--desires the "greater inner worth of his own person" [einen grosseren inneren Wert seiner Person] that comes only from obeying the moral law and thus becoming a "better person" (Ak 4.454).  In this way, Kant's categorical imperatives are reduced to a hypothetical imperative:  If you desire to be a better person with a sense of self-worth, then you ought to obey my categorical imperatives.  This, then, rests on two kinds of empirical claims--that human beings most desire personal self-worth and that obeying Kant's categorical imperatives will achieve that desired end.

Olsen's insistence on the is/ought dichotomy is closely connected to his criticism of my argument as being crudely emotivist (122, 160, 187-90, 193-94).  To show that I am an emotivist who believes that morality is merely a matter of following moral emotions, Olsen quotes from Darwinian Conservatism where I speak of Adam Smith as claiming that "our natural feelings often diverge from what purely rational principles might dictate" (160).  Olsen ignores the fact that on that same page of Darwinian Conservatism (43), I indicate that my point is that "the moral sense is not a product of pure reason alone but is rather a humanly unique capacity for moral judgment that combines social emotions and rational reflection."  Thus, as I indicate on the next page (44), "morality requires a combination of reason and emotion."

In Darwinian Conservatism (35-45, 124-29) and in Darwinian Natural Right (17-21, 24-25, 46-49, 70-73,  223-30), I have argued against those like Peter Singer who make the Kantian claim that morality is based on an abstract logic of pure reason alone without emotion or desire.  Psychopaths prove that this cannot be true.  Psychopaths are often intelligent people with a high capacity for abstract reasoning.  But they are moral monsters because they do not feel moral emotions such as guilt, shame, pity, and love, and thus they can deceive, injure, and even brutally torture and murder their fellow human beings without any moral feelings.

Although he does not elaborate the point, Olsen seems to accept Singer's claim that morality is based purely on abstract reasoning free from moral emotion or desire (160).  As I have indicated in one of my posts on Singer, he has suggested doubts about this in the "Afterword" to a new edition of The Expanding Circle.  He notes "how ambivalent I was about the idea of ethics being objectively true and rationally based," and now "I no longer believe that this argument succeeds."

Olsen thinks that in grounding morality on 20 natural desires, I have no rational principle by which to rank those desires when they conflict, and thus I have no way to resolve moral disputes.  He makes this point with the example of slavery.  He writes:
"If we consider his example that slavery is naturally wrong because it violates the desire for justice as reciprocity, the question which it is most important that Arnhart answers is this:  If 'justice as reciprocity' is only one of our natural desires, why should it trump the others, such as the desires for wealth and social ranking, both of which are on Arnhart's list?  He refers favorably to Lincoln's comments about being 'consistent,' but the question is why the slave owner should care about consistency.  If morality can be based in full on our desires, Arnhart's argument must presumably be, at the very least, the (quite plausible) claim that we have a natural desire for logical consistency.  But, if this is the unstated premise, is Arnhart then saying that we are more motivated by this particular motivation than by other motivations, or that we ought to be?  If the latter: why?  Is it because satisfying our desires for reciprocity and logical consistency are more conducive of our own long-term happiness than satisfying the desire for selfish gain through exploitation of others--or because they are somehow morally superior?  Again, either Arnhart is sneaking morality in the back door, since he has nothing beyond desires to ground his ought, or he must assume that satisfying our desires for reciprocity, justice and logical consistency is more conducive of long-term happiness for the agent than satisfying other, competing desires.  Even if this latter assumption could be defended empirically, however, it might be asked whether neo-Darwinian natural right theory has produced a persuasive reason for why slavery is wrong if the reason is derived solely or primarily from a strong desire against it on the part of would-be slave owners?  Similarly, Arnhart finds it relevant to argue that female genital mutilation makes intercourse less pleasurable for men, and that it in part for this reason does not really serve men's interests either" (193).
Olsen here is referring to my account of Lincoln's five arguments for why slavery is wrong, which I identify as the historical argument, the Euclidean argument, the biblical argument, the intuitionist argument, and the biological argument (Darwinian Natural Right, 193-201).  Lincoln shows that any attempt to defend slavery as just either contradicts the American political tradition, or contradicts itself, or contradicts the Bible, or contradicts our natural sense of right and wrong, or contradicts our shared humanity as members of the same species.  The fifth argument--the biological argument for our shared humanity--is the most fundamental since the other arguments presuppose it.

Olsen is specifically pointing to what I call the Euclidean argument.  Lincoln reasons as follows:
"If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.--why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?
"You say A. is white, and B. is black.  It is color, then; the lighter, have the right to enslave the darker?  Take care.  By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.  You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them?  Take care again.  By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
"But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another.  Very well.  And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you."
No rational person would argue for his own enslavement.  But any person who argues for the enslavement of others must appeal to some human difference that could be the basis for his own enslavement.  Therefore, no rational person can endorse slavery without contradicting himself.  Human beings differ in an infinite number of ways--color, intellect, interests, and so on--but each person believes that he has a right to liberty simply by virtue of his humanity--his human desire to be free from exploitation.  Yet if I affirm that I as a human being have a right to liberty, then to be consistent, I must also affirm that other human beings have a similar right.

In our natural human inclination to secure the benefits of social cooperation while protecting ourselves from being exploited by others, we appeal to reciprocity as the fundamental principle of fairness in social relationships, which makes it impossible for us to justify enslaving others without contradicting ourselves.  "This is a world of compensation," Lincoln declared, "and he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave."  This is so because human social life is a world of reciprocal exchange in which exploiters are ultimately punished by the moral aggression of those they exploit.

But as long as slavery satisfies the slaveholder's natural desires for wealth and status, Olsen asks, why shouldn't he allow this to override his natural desire for justice as reciprocity?  I have a twofold answer.  First, as a fact of human psychology, while a psychopathic slaveholder would feel no desire for justice as reciprocity, normal slaveholders would; and indeed Southern slaveholders either elaborated moral justifications for slavery as beneficial for the slaves, or they admitted their moral guilt in being caught in a tragic conflict between self-interest and justice.

Second, the ultimate natural enforcement of justice as reciprocity is the natural inclination of the exploited to retaliate against their exploiters.  The deepest fear of the Southern slaveholders was slave insurrection, because they knew that their slaves were not naturally adapted to slavery, and, on the contrary, they were naturally adapted for resisting their enslavement by violence if necessary.  As classical liberals like John Locke have noted, the ultimate ground of natural rights is the natural human tendency to violent resistance to oppression.

Olsen seems to think that he has an alternative to this grounding of natural right in natural desires.  But he never explains what that alternative is.  He does imply that he thinks there is some Kantian cosmic normativity that is grasped by pure abstract reason without any grounding in human desires, but he never clearly explains or defends this idea.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Olsen's Criticisms: Straw Men and Moral Progress

Olsen claims that my criticisms of the Left are directed at straw men (109-14, 290).

My criticisms of socialism, communism, and central planning have no application to modern liberalism, because modern liberals don't promote socialism, communism, or central planning.

My defense of private property against attempts to establish economic equality has no application to modern liberalism, because modern liberals accept private property and economic inequality, although they would like to reduce that inequality.

While I criticize the utopian belief in human perfectibility, Olsen insists that this has no application to modern liberalism, because modern liberals do not believe in human perfectibility, although they do have a meliorist belief in human improvability, which falls short of perfection.

I have to confess that this is the best criticism of my work.  Herbert Gintis might have been the first person to suggest this criticism (in his review of Darwinian Conservatism for "Amazon").  He wrote: "Arnhart avoids all the hard questions by choosing as the alternative political philosophy an absurd caricature of the leftist alternative that is more or less 19th century Utopianism."

This ignores the fact, however, that the utopian Left continued well into the 20th century--with Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, and Pol Pot--and such utopian ideology was the source of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century (as Pinker has argued).

Now, Olsen and Gintis might respond that modern liberals are not adherents of such socialist utopianism.  But as I indicated in Darwinian Conservatism, Herbert Croly--the founder of modern American progressive liberalism--proclaimed as his fundamental principle that "democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility."

Of course, over the past 40 years, much of the Left has become disillusioned by the historical experience of the last half of the 20th century--including the collapse of the Marxist regimes, the introduction of free market reforms in the welfare states of Scandinavia, and the apparent triumph of neoliberal globalization.  And some people on the Left--like Peter Singer--are now arguing against the utopian Leftist tradition in favor of a Darwinian Left.  But as I indicated in Darwinian Conservatism (122-29), Singer admits that this would require a painful rejection of Leftist utopianism.  A Darwinian left, Singer admits, would accept "that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like."  Such a left would have to realize that natural tendencies (such as social ranking, male dominance, sex roles, and attachment to one's kin) cannot simply be abolished.  But the strain in his argument is clear when he confesses: "In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved.  That is, I think, the best we can do today."  Remarkably, most of his "deflated" Leftism would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy.  For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channeling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the public good.

Olsen says that even a deflated Left that rejects the perfectibility once assumed by the utopian Left can still work for improvement and thus moral progress, while Darwinian conservatism denies that human progress is possible (114-20, 122, 156-59, 184-85). 

This criticism is perplexing to me, because all of my historical case studies are about moral progress.  For example, Olsen cites the abolition of slavery as moral progress, but my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right--the longest chapter in the book--is about how Darwinian natural right allows us to understand why this really was a case of moral progress.

Olsen cites the decline in violence as chronicled in Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature as an illustration of moral progress (117).  But Olsen is totally silent about all of my many blog posts in which I have agreed with Pinker.  The first of these posts on Pinker appeared in October-December, 2011.

Olsen says that while liberals question and criticize traditional customs and beliefs, Darwinian conservatives refuse to do this (122).  He is totally silent here about my account of how "moral judgments" allow us to question "moral traditions" (Darwinian Conservatism, 40-43). 

Olsen's Eight Criticisms

Jon Antein Olsen's dissertation is a good intellectual history of the argumentation for "neo-Darwinian conservatism" in the United States.  Although much of what he does is simply a descriptive history of the arguments, he also offers some critical assessments of the arguments. 

He identifies me first as a proponent of "neo-Darwinian conservative pessimism," in which I make a Darwinian argument for what Thomas Sowell called the "constrained vision" of social life as opposed to the "unconstrained vision."  He also identifies me as a proponent of "neo-Darwinian natural right," in which I make a Darwinian argument for what Leo Strauss called "natural right."

Olsen suggests at least eight possible criticisms of my reasoning.  In this post, I will list those criticisms.  In subsequent posts, I will reply to each one.

1.  Straw men.  Olsen charges that in my criticisms of the Left, I loosely associate modern liberalism with socialism, communism, and utopian thinking, which is a straw-man argument, because modern liberals today are not socialists, communists, or utopians.

2.  Moral progress.  He also charges that in my conservative pessimism and in my insistence on how imperfect human nature constrains what we can do, I ignore the moral progress in history that has been brought about by the Left.

3.  The naturalistic fallacy.  Olsen says that my project is "fundamentally and essentially guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy" (191), in trying to infer normative values from descriptive facts.

4.  Emotivism.  He criticizes me for trying to ground all morality on mere feeling or emotion, and thus ignoring the necessity for moral reason to rule over the "vulgar passions."

5.  The interpersonal dimension.  He also criticizes me for saying nothing about the "interpersonal dimension" of human life and thus failing to see that morality is always about the interests or perspectives of more than one individual.

6.  Contemporary issues and human rights.  He claims that I never apply Darwinian natural right reasoning to "issues that are at least remotely controversial in liberal democracies today" (195), and I never consider the possibility that Darwinian natural right might apply to contemporary thought about human rights.

7.  Religion and Darwin.  He emphasizes that the most common criticism of Darwinian conservatism by conservatives is that Darwinian science subverts religious belief and thus subverts the morality that depends on religious belief, and he implies that I have given no good answer to that objection.

8.  Human Biodiversity.  Olsen has a good chapter on the history of American conservatives who argue that the evolutionary science of human biodiversity supports scientific racism; and although he does not state it as a criticism, some readers might wonder whether I have any good response to this argument for the evolutionary psychology of race differences.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Neo-Darwinian Conservatism in the United States: A Dissertation by Jon Anstein Olsen

A few months ago, Jon Anstein Olsen successfully defended his dissertation for his Ph.D. at the University of Oslo (Norway), which is entitled Neo-Darwinian Conservatism in the United States. 

This is a fascinating work, and not just because I play a prominent role in it!  It is a thoughtful history and assessment of the argument for a Darwinian conservatism as it has developed in the United States over the past 40 years.  I hope that it will be soon published as a book.

Here is an abbreviated version of the Table of Contents:

1  INTRODUCTION
1.1  Boxed In?  The Grand Claims of Evolutionary Psychology
1.2  Jacks-In-The Box:  The Many Projects of Neo-Darwinian Conservatism

2  THEORY, METHODOLOGY, AND DELIMITATIONS
2.1  Theory and Methodology
2.2  The Study Object
2.3  Literature

3  EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY: AN OVERVIEW
3.1  Introduction
3.2  Darwinian Psychology Prior to World War II
3.3  Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Psychology
3.4  Criticism of Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Psychology

4  NEO-DARWINIAN CONSERVATIVE PESSIMISM
4.1  Introduction: The Constrained Vision of Intellectual Conservatism
4.2  Evolutionary Psychology as Buttressing the Constrained Vision?
4.3  Discussion

5  THE MALE AS PROBLEM:  NEO-DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM AND GENDER
5.1  Introduction
5.2  The Problem of Male Sexuality
5.3  The Problems of Male Aggression, Competitiveness, and Status-Seeking
5.4  The Family as Organism:  Extremist Neo-Darwinian Gender Conservatism
5.5  Discussion

6  NEO-DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT
6.1  Introduction
6.2  Background: Natural Right and Modern American Conservatism
6.3  The Neo-Darwinian Reconstruction of Straussian Natural Right
6.4  Discussion

7  HUMAN BIODIVERSITY AND CONSERVATIVE DEFENSES OF RACIAL INEQUALITIES
7.1  Introduction: Race, Conservatism, and American Identity
7.2  Empirical Race Claims and Proposed Evolutionary Explanations
7.3  The Normative Projects: Neo-Darwinian Race Conservatism
7.4  Discussion

8  ANTI-DARWINISM AND THE UTILITY OF RELIGION IN CONSERVATIVE THOUGHT
8.1  Introduction
8.2  God and Darwin
8.3  Consequentialist Aspects of the Conservative Concern with Religion
8.4  Neo-Darwinism and Its Consequences

9  CONCLUSION
9.1  American Neo-Darwinian Conservatism: A Review of the Landscape
9.2  Analysis and Discussion: A Summary
9.3  What Is Left?  What Is Right?
9.4  The Prospects of Neo-Darwinian Conservatism in the United States

Olsen's account of my position comes from his reading of Darwinian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, and some of my articles.  The most obvious weakness in his writing is that he never mentions any of my posts on this blog, although he would have found here many posts answering all of the objections that he makes to my reasoning.

I will be writing a series of posts responding to his criticisms.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Evolution of Inequality (3): Piketty's Historical Data

The debate over the history of economic inequality has been one of the fundamental disputes in political philosophy and the social sciences.  Until recently, Thomas Piketty complains, this has been a debate without data. 

In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men, Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that he had explained the evolutionary origins of war, property, and inequality.  While he relied on the best anthropological evidence available to him, he looked forward to the time when scientists would take long voyages around the world to collect evidence for human evolution that would allow them to write "the natural, moral, and political history" of humanity (1964: 213).  Over the past two centuries, that work has been done by biologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, so that now we can write the evolutionary history of humanity foreseen by Rousseau, which allows us to judge whether Rousseau's account of the origin of inequality is true or not.  In some previous posts, I have argued that the evidence supports Locke's evolutionary history as more accurate than Rousseau's.

Economists like Piketty are less interested in the ancient evolution of inequality than in the more recent evolutionary history over the past 250 years, because they want to understand whether modern capitalism inevitably concentrates wealth into ever fewer hands.  And they would like to see quantitative data that can be analyzed systematically to produce a statistical history of inequality.  The most impressive feature of Piketty's book is that he does that. 

Piketty's data analysis is available online in his "World Top Incomes Database" and in the website for his book, which includes all of the tables and figures from the book.  Piketty's visual presentation of his argument in these tables and figures is remarkably engaging.

And yet there has been a lot of criticism of his data analysis.  One can see that, for example, in the webcast of the panel on Piketty's book at the Tax Policy Center on April 15, which included Piketty and one of his leading critics--Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute.

This debate over Piketty's book continues a debate that began with Karl Marx, who predicted that capitalism would inevitably concentrate wealth into ever fewer hands, so that a few capitalists would own almost all the wealth, and their workers would sink into miserable poverty as their wages were reduced.  In doing that, however, capitalism would produce the conditions for its revolutionary overthrow, because the workers would be provoked into revolutionary violence, and the communists could lead them into abolishing private property and then establishing a classless socialist society in which all people could cooperate without a ruling class.

Marx's prediction that workers would become ever more impoverished turned out not to be true.  During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the purchasing power of workers' wages began to increase, and thus many workers were happy enough to be turned away from revolutionary activity.

But Marx's prediction about the growing inequality of wealth seemed to be true.  By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the top 5-10% of the richest people in the richest countries owned most of the wealth, and the bottom 50% of the people owned almost nothing.  Thus, capitalism seemed to promote an unjust inequality of wealth.

By the 1950s, however, some economists thought they saw evidence that inequality was declining.  In his presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1954, Simon Kuznets surveyed income tax data from the United States, England, and Germany that showed that economic inequality had declined since World War I ("Economic Growth and Income Inequality," The American Economic Review 45 [March, 1955]: 1-28).  Kuznets claimed that while inequality increased in England in the first half of the nineteenth century, Marx mistakenly assumed that this would continue into the future.  Kuznets saw a long historical swing in income inequality: early in the industrial revolution, inequality grew; but later, as more people benefited from economic growth, this inequality would decline.  For many economists, this became part of the intellectual defense of capitalism against Marxist criticisms.  And yet, Kuznets admitted that his empirical evidence was so limited that his general theory was mostly speculation, in which he was generalizing from a limited stretch of historical experience.

Piketty enters this debate over the history of economic inequality with more quantitative evidence over a longer period of history than has been offered by any other economic historian.  Piketty and his colleagues have collected and analyzed relevant data for over 25 countries, mostly from income tax returns and national economic accounts.  Most of this evidence is from the twentieth century, but some of it goes back into the eighteenth century.  This allows him to construct historical time series, such as the following for the United States.






The first figure shows the share of total wealth in the United States held by the wealthiest 10% of the people.  Wealth or capital is defined as the sum total of all nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market, which includes real estate and financial and professional capital (such as plants, infrastructure, machinery, and patents).  This stock of capital owned at a particular point in time comes from the wealth appropriated or accumulated in all prior years.  From 1917 to 1932, the share of the top 10% ranged from 75% to 83% of the total wealth.  That share dropped to a low of 64% in 1986.  But then it started rising so that in 2012 it was back up to 75%.  The top 1% of the wealthiest Americans today own about 35% of all the wealth.  By contrast, the bottom 50% of the American people today own only 2% of the wealth.

The second figure shows the share of total yearly pre-tax income in the United States received by the 10% of the people with the highest incomes.  Income includes both payments to workers and others who contribute to the production of goods and services and payments to the owners of capital (such as profits, dividends, interest, rents, and royalties).  From 1917 to 1928, the share of the top 10% with the highest incomes ranged from 38% to 49%.  That share dropped in later years to a low of 33%.  But then it started rising in the late 1970s up to a high of over 50% in 2012.  The top 1% of Americans (with yearly incomes above $350,000) took almost 25% of total income.

Notice that for both wealth and income, economic inequality declined after World War I and then started rising in the 1970s or 1980s.  Piketty shows the same pattern in Europe.  He explains this as a consequence of the economic and political shocks of the two world wars and the Great Depression, which destroyed much of the wealth of the richest people, and of the high progressive tax rates that arose during this period. 

Only such severe shocks could reduce the rate of return on capital below the economic growth rate, which reduces inequality.  The general tendency of capitalism without such shocks, Piketty argues, is to foster a rate of return on capital (r) that is higher than the economic growth rate (g), which creates steadily increasing inequality.  Thus, Marx was right about the tendency of capitalism to increasingly concentrate wealth in the hands of a few capitalists, and thereby create an unjust economic inequality.  This must be so, Piketty argues, as long as > g, which is the central contradiction of capitalism.  Here's how Piketty charts the history of this inequality > g:


This Figure 10-10 of his book shows the rate of return on capital versus growth rate at the global level from antiquity to the present.  For 2,000 years or more, Piketty assumes, the average rate of return on capital has been 4.5-5%, while there has been essentially no annual economic growth until the eighteenth century.  Since then, the economic growth rate has been 1.5-4%.  We can see here that in the first half of the twentieth century, the economic and political shocks of that period created a situation where for the first time in history, the net return on capital was less than the growth rate, which brought a decline in inequality.  But if this is reversed in the rest of the 21st century, and once again r > g then we can expect that capitalism will resume its normal tendency to increase inequality.  To avoid this future turn to capitalist oligarchy, Piketty insists, we will need to adopt his policy proposals: a generous social welfare state, steeply progressive tax rates, and a global tax on wealth.

Piketty's critics have offered many criticisms of his presentation of historical data.  I will mention ten of the criticisms here.

1.  As Kevin Hassett indicated, some economists think that a huge part of the capital growth since 1980 has been from the growth in housing prices, which Piketty ignores.  Until the housing bubble burst, this contributed a lot to the growth in middle class wealth.

2.  Notice that in measuring income as recorded on tax returns, Piketty reports only "pre-tax, pre-transfer" income.  He does not consider the effects of taxation and government transfers in raising the incomes of the poor and the middle class.  When Hassett raised this point, Piketty responded by saying that the biggest transfer programs in the U.S.--Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security--helped mostly retirees and health providers.  But the point remains that including the value of such transfers would lower inequality.

3.  Hassett argued that if we look at studies of consumption expenditures in the U.S., there hasn't been much increase in inequality since 1980.  Piketty responded by pointing out that the household surveys Hassett was citing relied on self-reporting, which probably underestimates the consumption of upper class people.

4.  Hassett and others have pointed out that Piketty looks mostly at inequality within nations, which ignores the importance of global inequality.  There is a lot of evidence that the inequality between the richest nations and the poorer nations has declined dramatically since 1980.

5.  Writing in National Review, Scott Winship has criticized Piketty for relying on income tax data.  This means that a lot of the income for middle class and working class people is invisible, because it is not reported on tax returns--for example, non-taxable capital gains from home sales, 401 (k) and IRA investments, and employer-provided health insurance.  Another problem with Piketty's income tax data is that it includes tax filings by young dependents with part-time jobs, which makes the bottom level of income look worse than it really is.

6.  Look again at Figure 10-10 above.  Notice that Piketty assumes that the return on capital was fixed at 4.5-5% for 1,800 years or more, up to 1820.  How does he know that?  Piketty writes: "For early periods, I have used a pure return of 4.5 percent, which should be taken as a minimum value (available historical data suggest average returns on the order of 5-6 percent)" (354).  In the footnote to this passage, he writes: "For land rent, the earliest data available for antiquity and the Middle Ages suggest annual returns of around 5 percent.  For interest on loans, we often find rates above 5 percent in earlier periods, typically on the order of 6-8 percent, even for loans with real estate collateral.  See, for example, the data collected by S. Homer and R. Sylla, A History of Interest Rates (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996)" (613, n. 16).

Notice that Piketty does not cite any specific pages of Homer and Sylla's book.  If you look at their book, you will see that nowhere do they specify returns on capital "around 5 percent" or "typically on the order of 6-8 percent."  Actually, Homer and Sylla report wildly variable annual interest rates from less than 1% to over 100%.

Hunter Lewis at the Mises Institute website has pointed out the absurdity of Piketty's assumption of a steady compounded return on capital of 4.5% a year over 1,800 years.  If we started with $10 in year one, this fixed rate of return for 1,800 years would have generated a trillion times the entire wealth of the world today!

This points to a fundamental problem for Piketty's historical data analysis, a problem indicated by Tyler Cowen in his review of Piketty's book for Foreign Affairs.  He generally assumes that the return on capital is fixed and risk-free, so that the wealth of those with high capital assets will always grow and never decline.  Of course, that is not true.  In various passages of his book, Piketty admits that "the return on capital is in practice extremely volatile" (488).  (See also pages 6, 115-16, 353, 362, 411, 414, 446, 449-52, 488, 527.)

Capital has no value unless it is invested in productive activity; and since no one knows for sure what is going to be productive in the future, the owners of capital are always engaged in risky activity.  So, for example, as Piketty indicates, David Ricardo mistakenly assumed that all wealth would become concentrated in the hands of landowners, because of the rising price of land (6).  This was a mistake, because he did not anticipate how technological progress and industrial growth would reduce the value of farm land relative to other forms of wealth.  Contrary to what Piketty assumes in much of his book, capital is not a homogeneous blob of stuff that uniformly and inevitably earns a high rate of return.  In 2009, Circuit City was the second largest electronics retailer (behind Best Buy), and it went bankrupt.  Apparently, the capital of Circuit City had not been directed to its most productive uses.

Oddly, Picketty concedes this point when he comments on how the largest university endowments (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) earn greater returns than smaller endowments, because the schools with the largest endowments can afford to spend $100 million a year to employ the best financial advisors and money managers to identify the high-risk but potentially high-return investments.  "To be sure, financial advisors and money managers are not infallible (to say the least), but their ability to identify more profitable investments is the main reason why the largest endowments obtain the highest returns" (450).

7.  Looking again at Figure 10-10, one should notice that Piketty's own data show a narrowing of the gap between the return on capital and economic growth at the end of the 20th century as compared with the 19th century.  If this is so, then the logic of his own argument should dictate that inequality is unlikely to increase in the future.

8.  So how does Piketty arrive at his prediction in Figure 10-10 that r will rise above g over the next few decades?  Well, he has to make lots of assumptions about the future.  He has to assume that the rate of economic growth will slow from 3.5-4% a year in the second half of the 20th century to 1.5% a year between 2050 and 2100.  He also has to assume that by 2050 there will be no taxes on capital (355).  But why should we make such assumptions about the future?

This points to a fundamental problem.  As James Q. Wilson used to say, we can't predict the future in the social sciences, because it's hard enough to predict the past.  As Piketty indicates, social scientists like Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, and Kuznets all failed to predict the future in any precise way.  So why should we expect Piketty to succeed where they failed?  He even admits that the title of his book--Capital in the Twenty-First Century--is false, and that a more accurate title would be Capital at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century (35). But then after admitting that he cannot predict the future, he predicts the future based on lots of dubious assumptions; and it's that prediction about the future that has made his book a best-seller.

9.  Piketty predicts that by the middle of the 21st century, we will see a "terrifying" class structure of wealth distribution in which a small group of oligarchic capitalists will rule over the rest of society, and he thinks this is a realistic projection of trends that we already see today (571).  This implies that the class structure of income and wealth is becoming fixed, with no movement between classes.  But it's not clear that the evidence supports this.

As Mark Rank has indicated in the New York Times, the popular image of a static class division between the top and the bottom, or between the top 1 percent and the 99 percent, is false.  From studying 44 years of longitudinal data in the United States, Rank has shown that 12 percent of the population will be in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year.  39 percent will reach the top 5 percent, 56 percent will reach the top 10 percent, and 73 percent will reach the top 20 percent.

On the one hand, this shows the economic vulnerability of Americans in that even when they have reached affluence in one year, they might fall down in other years.  The title of Rank's article is "From Rags to Riches to Rags."  On the other hand, this does show the remarkable mobility and flux in the American economic class system, with lots of movement into and out of the top 1 percent or 5 percent or 10 percent.  This doesn't look like the sort of rigidly fixed class divisions that are implied by Piketty.

Moreover, Piketty concedes that one of the major innovations of capitalism has been the creation of a "patrimonial middle class" (260-62, 346-47).  In the United States, according to Piketty's numbers, the top 10% (the "upper class") receive 35% of the total labor income, and they own 70% of the capital; but the middle 40% (the "middle class") receive 40% of the labor income, and they own 25% of the capital (246-50).  That the middle class has such a large portion of the total income and wealth is probably unique in human history.

But still we can see a very high level of inequality.  Is this unjust and socially disruptive, as Piketty claims?  Much of this inequality can be explained as a consequence of the emergence of highly technological and cognitively challenging societies in which economic advancement depends largely on education, talent, and cognitive ability.  As the demand for highly skilled people rises, their incomes rise relative to the incomes of unskilled people.  Piketty concedes that this is largely true, but he also disparages the idea that economic success can always be justified as a reward for merit (21, 71, 85, 234, 305-308, 419-429, 443-47, 514).  Of course, he is right that economic success always depends to some large degree on lucky endowments or opportunities that are unearned.  But still, the importance of special cognitive skills and talents in a modern capitalist economy shows that economic success can be meritocratic, at least to some degree.

10.  Finally, many critics have objected that Piketty's obsession with measuring inequality ignores the importance of measuring well-being.  Why should we worry about capitalist inequality if capitalism generally makes all of us better off in the long run?  Piketty admits that capitalism has promoted economic growth that has made most human beings better off on average than ever before in the history of the world.  He observes: "the material conditions of life have clearly improved dramatically since the Industrial Revolution, allowing people around the world to eat better, dress better, travel, learn, obtain medical care, and so on" (89).

But Piketty suggests that no matter how well off people are at the bottom of the social scale, the mere fact that they are at the bottom makes them miserable and angry because of their envy for those at the top, and at some point this will lead to violent conflict.  Piketty writes: "At Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1888, and then at Fourmies, in northern France, on May 1, 1891, police fired on workers striking for higher wages.  Does this kind of violent clash between labor and capital belong to the past, or will it be an integral part of twenty-first-century history?" (39)  In asking this ominous question, Piketty clearly implies that we should expect to see such violence if we do not adopt his proposals for redistributing wealth. 

Marx admitted that during periods of economic expansion, capitalists would be able to pay higher wages and increase their profits at the same time. He argued, though, that this would not eliminate the exploitative features of capitalism:  "If capital is growing rapidly, wages may rise; the profit of capital rises incomparably more rapidly. The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social gulf that divides him from the capitalist has widened" (Marx-Engels Reader, 211)  Higher wages “would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or for labor their human status and dignity” (80).  Even if many modern workers do not suffer from the poverty of physical deprivation, they do suffer from the poverty of social deprivation. Although the workers may benefit from high incomes, they still occupy an inferior position in society as long as most of the wealth is controlled by a small economic elite, and thus inequality is necessarily degrading to those at the bottom.  Piketty seems to agree with Marx about this.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Evolution of Inequality (2): Piketty and the Declaration of Rights of 1789

On Bastille Day, it is appropriate to ponder Thomas Piketty's appeal to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. 

The epigram for his book--Capital in the Twenty-First Century--is the second sentence of Article 1 of the Declaration: "Social distinctions can be based only on common utility."  He frequently cites this as the fundamental moral and political principle to justify his condemnation of economic inequality and his policy proposals for redistributing wealth through confiscatory progressive taxation (1, 30-31, 422, 480, 493, 504).  The Declaration of Rights of 1789 has constitutional authority for France, because it is affirmed in the Preamble of the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic of 1958.  It is also authoritative for the United States, Piketty suggests, insofar as the Declaration of 1789 echoes the language of the American Declaration of Independence (479-80, 493-94).  Thus, implicitly at least, Piketty writes as a political philosopher advancing an ideal standard of social justice founded on a Rawlsian conception of equality of rights as stated in the Declaration of Rights of 1789.

But if one reads the text if the Declaration, one can see that it does not support Piketty's argument.  Here are the first two articles:
1.  Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.  Social distinctions may be founded only upon the common utility [l'utilite commune].
2.  The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.  These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
Piketty sees Article 1 as pointing to a fundamental contradiction--the "absolute equality" of the first sentence is contradicted by the recognition in the second sentence of the "existence of very real inequalities."  To overcome this contradiction, the second sentence suggests how social inequalities can be justified if they are for the "common utility" (422, 479-80)?

So what is meant by "common utility"?  Piketty writes: "The drafters of the Declaration were thinking mainly of the abolition of the orders and privileges of the Ancien Regime, which were seen at the time as the very epitome of arbitrary, useless inequality, hence as not contributing to 'common utility'" (480).  The most obviously unjust inequality that led to the Revolution was the exemption of the nobility and the priests from taxation.  Piketty admits, however, that this interpretation of "common utility" is not broad enough to support his argument.  A broader and "reasonable interpretation," he suggests, is that "common utility" requires John Rawls's "difference principle" of justice--social inequalities are justified only if they benefit the most disadvantaged social groups.

The French Revolution was "the 'bourgeois' revolution par excellence," which established "an ideal of legal equality in relation to the market."  But, for Piketty, that is not enough, because the economic inequality that arose after the Revolution showed that "equality of rights in the marketplace cannot ensure equality of rights tout court" (30).  To achieve full equality of rights, Piketty insists, we need steeply progressive confiscatory taxation in every nation--with marginal tax rates of 80-90% for the wealthiest people--combined with a global tax on wealth.  The purpose of such taxation is not to raise revenue, he explains.  "It is rather to put an end to such incomes and large estates, which lawmakers have for one reason or another come to regard as socially unacceptable and economically unproductive--or it not to end them, then at least to make it extremely costly to sustain them and strongly discourage their perpetuation" (505).

Piketty is puzzled as to why the principle of progressive taxation was rejected in the French Revolution (532).  He doesn't recognize that such taxation would have contradicted the principles of the Declaration of Rights, as indicated by Articles 12-13, and 17:
12.  The security of the rights of man and of citizens requires public military forces.  These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be entrusted.
13.  A general tax is indispensable for the maintenance of the public force and for the expenses of administration; it ought to be equally apportioned among all citizens according to their means.
17.  Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, unless demanded by the public necessity, legally constituted, explicitly demands it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.
Thus, taxation is to support military forces and the administrative expenses of government; and they must be "general" and "equally apportioned among all citizens," which forbids the discriminatory inequality of steeply progressive taxation.  Moreover, the intentional use of such confiscatory taxation to abolish certain kinds of property would seem to violate the "inviolable and sacred right" of property.  (In identifying the right to property as "inviolable and sacred," the Declaration adopted the language of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations [Liberty Fund edition, 138, 188, 582, 665-66].) 

In The Communist Manifesto,  Marx declared that "the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property" (Marx-Engels Reader, 484).  The first steps towards complete abolition of private property will require "despotic inroads on the rights of property," which will include four measures:
1.  Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2.  A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3.  Abolition of all right of inheritance.
4.  Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. (490)
Like Piketty, Marx saw the French Revolution as a purely "bourgeois" revolution, and he saw that the communist revolution would require more radical steps towards abolishing private property.  Unlike Marx, Piketty argues for a partial abolition of private property--the property of the richest that is "socially unacceptable and economically unproductive"--that stops short of complete abolition.

One should notice that much of what Piketty recommends was a general policy in the United States and Great Britain for over 50 years.  Piketty rightly points out that the "confiscatory taxation of excessive incomes" was an "American invention" that was adopted in Great Britain.  Prior to 1980, the top marginal tax rates for the richest people in the United States and Great Britain were 80-90% (505-512).  After 1980, those rates dropped to 28%-40% because of the "conservative revolution" of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  Piketty's primary aim is to overcome the effects of Reaganism and Thatcherism and return to the Anglo-American confiscatory tax policies of 1920-1980 (98, 138-39, 333, 511, 549). 

Thus, Piketty is arguing for an extreme form of social democracy or democratic socialism--similar to what the Nordic social democracies have.  This is not pure socialism, because he agrees with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek (although he never mentions them) that pure socialism is impossible, because a modern economy cannot be organized without market prices (6, 531-32).  So Piketty is trying to combine the best of capitalism with the best of socialism in a capitalist welfare state.
 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Evolution of Inequality

When French economist Thomas Piketty came to the United States this spring for a book tour, he was treated as an intellectual celebrity.  At some events, he was introduced as "the new Tocqueville."  His book--Capital in the Twenty-First Century--has become a  bestseller.  It's reported that it has been selling faster than any book in the entire history of Harvard University Press.

As the title of the book suggests, Piketty presents himself as the Marx of the 21st century.  Although he is not an orthodox Marxist, he does look like a Marxist revisionist.  He agrees with Marx that capitalism tends to produce an unjust inequality in which a capitalist oligarchy claims an unfair share of income without working, but his solution to this problem differs from Marx's. 

Piketty's descriptive argument is that the shocks of two world wars and the Great Depression reduced the gap between the rich and the poor in Europe and North America from 1920 to 1970, but that since 1970, the gap has widened so that by the middle of the 21st century inequality will be back up to the pre-World War I levels--with the top 10% of people owning 90% of all the wealth and 45% of all the yearly income.  This is what he calls "patrimonial capitalism."

His prescriptive argument is that to avoid such unfair inequality and the social instability that it would likely provoke, we need to enact three policies.  First, we need to expand the social welfare state.  Second, we need to have a sharply progressive income tax with marginal tax rates for the wealthiest people at 80% or above.  Third, we need a progressive global tax on capital with marginal tax rates of 2-4% for the wealthiest people, combined with international financial reporting so that people cannot hide their wealth.  He presents this as a "useful utopia"--a utopia because he does expect this to be enacted anytime soon, but useful because it sets a reasonable standard to which we can look as we engage in democratic deliberation about the problem of inequality.  This is a radical form of the capitalist welfare state or the Nordic model of social democracy, and thus he is in the Marxist revisionist and social democratic tradition of Eduard Bernstein.

Although I disagree with him on many points, I have found his book to be one of the most illuminating and provocative books that I have read in the past ten years.  It is a stunning moral and political history of inequality over the past 250 years and an projection of the possible future courses of inequality.

This is the first of a series of posts on Piketty and inequality.  Before turning to Piketty's arguments, I want to here reflect on how his history fits into the entire evolutionary history of inequality from the Stone Age to the present.  For this purpose, there is a convenient collection of a dozen articles on "The Science of Inequality" in Science (May 23, 2014).  This includes an article by Piketty that concisely summarizes his descriptive argument in six pages, which is a helpful introduction to his 700 page book.

In the evolution of inequality, I see five stages: simple foraging societies, complex foraging societies, agrarian states, capitalist liberal states, and capitalist welfare states.

Simple foragers--nomadic hunter-gatherers--are often identified as living in an "egalitarian Eden" (Pennisi 2014), where no one has more property, power, or status than others, and thus the history of inequality begins with the departure from that state of pure equality.  For those who yearn for such equality--those like Rousseau and Marx--the great aim is to organize a society that approximates in some manner this original egalitarian condition in which no one could dominate over anyone else.

Although it is true that simple foraging societies are more egalitarian than any other other human society, foragers are not completely equal, because individuals are naturally different, and some individuals are naturally inclined to assert some superiority over others.  Some are more skillful hunters, or better at mediating disputes, or better at managing shamanistic ceremonies than others.  There is leadership in such societies.  But such leadership is informal and episodic.  And to preserve their individual autonomy, foragers punish those who assert too much dominance over others (Kelly 1995, 293-97; Johnson and Earle 2000, 32-33, 57-58; Boehm 1999).

In complex foraging societies, we can see "the ancient roots of the 1%" (Pringle 2014).  Although inequality is often said to have originated with farming (as Rousseau claimed), foraging societies that had access to concentrated patches of wild foods (such as rivers with abundant fish and plentiful areas of wild cereals) could accumulate surpluses that could come under private ownership.  A few ambitious and aggressive people could use their ownership of such property to support their status and power over others, which could evolve into chiefdoms (Kelly 1995, 302-31; Hayden 2011).

In agrarian societies, the surplus of food produced by farming and herding allows for a settled existence and a greater specialization of labor, in which there arise specialized classes of people in a hierarchical structure--traders, soldiers, bureaucrats, lords, priests, and kings--who live off the productive labor of the peasants.

By the end of the 18th century, the feudal order of European agrarian societies was being overthrown by a bourgeois revolution that led to capitalist liberal states--as in the American and French Revolutions.  The inherited privileges of lords, priests, and kings were set aside in favor of the bourgeois principles of equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  But as Piketty shows very well, equal access to free markets and free competition did not produce economic inequality.  In France, for example, economic inequality increased steadily in the 19th century, so that by 1910, the top 1% of the people held 60% of the total wealth in France, and the top 10% held 90%, which is probably close to the inequality of private wealth on the eve of the Revolution in 1789.

The reason why capitalist liberalism could not reduce inequality, Piketty argues, is because of the central contradiction of capitalism, which he expresses as r > g.    The private rate of return on capital (r) tends to be higher for long periods of time than the rate of economic growth (g).  As a consequence, wealth accumulated from the past grows more rapidly than output and wages; and the entrepreneur inevitably becomes a rentier, living off his return on capital without having to work, which allows him to become ever more dominant over those who own nothing but their labor.

A clear reduction in inequality did not come until the emergence after World War I of the capitalist welfare state based on social welfare programs and high progressive income and estate taxes.  So, for example, in the Scandinavian countries in the 1970s and 1980s, the top 1% owned 20% of the capital wealth, and the top 10% owned 50%.  In Piketty's ideal society, this inequality would be reduced even more, so that the top 1% would own no more than 10% of the wealth, and the top 10% would own no more than 30% of the wealth.

But notice that in this entire history, even including Piketty's ideal society in the future, absolute equality is never attained.  A Marxist communist revolution would try to achieve something close to absolute equality by abolishing private property and free markets.  But Piketty thinks that can't work--as indicated by the failure of Soviet central planning--and so he wants to combine capitalist private property and markets with a system of social welfare and redistributive taxation that reduces but does not abolish inequality.

Does Piketty thus concede, at least implicitly, that evolved human nature makes absolute equality impossible?

To be continued . . .


REFERENCES

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Robert L. Kelly,The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).

Brian Hayden, "Big Man, Big Heart?  The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies," in D. R. Forsyth and C. L. Hoyt, eds., For the Greater Good of All: Perspectives on Individualism, Society, and Leadership (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 101-118.

Allen W. Johnson and Timothy Earle, The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).


Articles in Science, 344 (May 23, 2014):

Elizabeth Pennisi, "Our Egalitarian Eden," 824-25.

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, "Inequality in the Long Run," 838-50.

Heather Pringle, "The Ancient Roots of the 1%," 822-25.

I have written about the ancient evolution of inequality in a previous post, which includes links to other pertinent posts.