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Has Capitalism Run Its Course?

The Garden of Eden is a myth but can we restore the social harmony of the past?

Key points

  • There is nothing more divisive in any society than a highly unequal distribution of resources where the poor are allowed to starve.
  • As societies became more complex and wealthier, resources were distributed with increasing inequality—a pattern unbroken until the 20th century.
  • Since the 1980s, the world has seen a return of wealth concentration and inequality is once again at dangerous levels.

Humans began as a sharing species but modern life promotes competition and consumption. How did we get here? Are we as happy, and healthy, as our remote ancestors? Can we make our way back to their level of social cohesion?

Stone Age Affluence

Life has always been a struggle for survival and hunter-gatherers did not live in the Garden of Eden.

Indeed, complex civilization has brought many benefits in terms of improved health and better living conditions for most (1).

Improved living conditions in complex societies have a cost and that cost includes increased social competition together with intensified territorial disputes and warfare.

Civilization and Its Discontents

Much of the conflict in complex societies pivots around access to resources. For farmers like the Paiute in the US southwest, warfare involved competition over fertile land. In Turkey, during the Bronze Age, otherwise peaceful farming communities went to war over tin that was alloyed with copper to produce weapons (2).

As complex societies, like Uruk, developed in Iraq, they experienced increased levels of violence as rival city-states engaged in a perpetual war for political supremacy (2). Such conflicts are inherently a competition over wealth. To the victors go the spoils, as the proverb says.

Money is also said to be the root of all evil. There is nothing more divisive in any society than a highly unequal distribution of resources where the poor are allowed to starve and the wealthy squander the resources that could save them.

The Rise of Inequality

Simpler societies were egalitarian. Instead of competing to accumulate valuable resources, members of foraging societies share them equally. This applies to scarce high-energy foods, such as meat and honey.

Inequality rises as societies become more complex. This phenomenon has been studied for archaeological sites going back 10 millennia (3). Variation in home sizes was used as a proxy for wealth and researchers calculated a standard measure of inequality from these data (the Gini coefficient).

As food production became more intensified, inequality increased. Foragers were more equal than horticulturalists (who cultivate temporary gardens) who were more equal than settled farmers.

Villages were more equal than towns and towns were more equal than cities (3).

So, as societies became more complex and wealthier, resources were distributed with increasing inequality. This pattern was unbroken until the 20th century (4).

Beginning around the middle of the century, inequality declined substantially for the first time in history. One reason was that wealthy people saw much of their wealth destroyed during World War II. Another was that government actions, such as progressive taxation, redistributed wealth from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy when tax receipts were used to fund programs such as food stamps, school lunches, and free education for soldiers, as well as health benefits and a guaranteed income for the retired.

The Socialist Experiment

By the end of the 19th century, inequality had risen to an extreme and there was a great deal of political unrest aimed at bringing down the Robber Barons of the world and improving the plight of workers (4). This dissatisfaction contributed both to the Russian Revolution and to the fascist takeover in Germany and other European countries.

These revolutions confiscated the property of the wealthy and offered minimal improvements for poorer segments of the population but did not address the overall problem of unfairness. In general, members of the ruling parties enriched themselves at the expense of everyone else so that the elite class effectively got larger.

While the fascists were defeated in war, and thus consigned to history, the socialist experiment lumbered on until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their experiment failed because the quality of life did not match that under capitalism.

Following its triumph over Communism, the West lost sight of the principle that societies work best when capital is more equally distributed. Since the 1980s, we have seen a return of wealth concentration typified by the overnight fortunes of Internet companies. Inequality is again at dangerous levels that predict revolutions. Now, in the response to COVID, we have seen again what happens when money is applied to people who need it most.

The COVID Crisis

Supplementing the incomes of American workers idled by the pandemic did more to reduce poverty than either Roosevelt's New Deal or Johnson's War on Poverty (5). Poverty was more than halved in a few months compared to what it would have been without government intervention. This accomplishment promises huge dividends in the form of reduced social problems and increased productivity in the future.

There is no evidence that the unearned income contributed to laziness and every indication that the money was used in ways that promote permanent improvements in the quality of life of recipients. Is it time to return to our roots with sharing of resources via guaranteed minimum income?

References

1 Floud, R., Fogel, R. W., Harris, B., & Hong, S. C. (2011). The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the Western world since 1700. Cambridge, England: NBER/Cambridge University Press.

2 Fagan, B. M., and Durrani, N. (2017). World prehistory: a brief introduction. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

3 Kohler, T. A., and Smith, M. E. (2018). Ten thousand years of inequality: The archaeology of wealth differences. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

4 Pikety, T. (2021). Inequality and ideology. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

5 O'Toole, F. (2021, Sept 13). Pandemic has shown the real wonder drug is money. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-pandemic-has-shown-th…

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