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Wealth, democracy, and self-reliance

August 20, 2010

The distribution of wealth in the US – the most advanced capitalist country – goes against most people’s sense of moral justice.  As noted here, 72% of financial wealth is controlled by a mere 5% of the population while the bottom 80% have just 7%.  America is owned by a very few number of people.  One can look at historical graphs covering the past 100 years and see that US wealth concentration dipped a bit in the immediate postwar decades but then recovered to pre-war levels beginning around 1980.  The 1950-1970 period can now be seen as just a brief historical blip in a consistent theme of concentration.

The Financial Times reported today that the wealthiest 10% in China had a per capita income  65 times that of the poorest 10%.  It adds that “hidden stock gains, property deals and plain old hongbao – red envelopes stuffed with cash – are forcing China’s rich / poor divide wider by the day”.

These are not isolated examples.  If we look beyond the US and China, we see the exact same situation in every country in the world – the ownership of productive resources, i.e. wealth, is everywhere concentrated in the hands of an extremely small number of people.  This is not unique to capitalism – it has existed in virtually every society in recorded history.  Is it a law of human nature?  I like to believe not.  I think a strong case can be made that societies evolve slowly and elite control is a self perpetuating relic from our ancient past.

Many feel we are different today because of democracy.  We shouldn’t stretch that point too far.  Politics is controlled by the wealthy few and the ultimate distributional outcome is exactly the same as in the past.  The hard truth is that most workers today are in many respects little different than serfs, and in some aspects actually worse off.  Like the serfs who worked for the noble aristocrats that owned the land, the worker today labors without owning.  At times serfs even had it better because there were historical periods in which they had a legal right to the use of the land and were therefore not subject to the insecurity of the sack.  They often had a sense of self-reliance that workers today have lost.

The inherent value of self-reliance is a point often and rightly recognized by conservatives who are against welfare programs which they see as diminishing it.  What they refuse to acknowledge, though, is that it’s not possible for workers to be self-reliant in a system where only a few own the means to make a living and in which those means are managed solely under the logic of cost and profit.  Self reliance is a good thing which we should all support.  But it’s not a realistic position to believe self-reliance can be a widespread phenomenon within our current structure.

This is not an argument for centralized socialism, but it must be recognized that the democratic revolution which began in the 18th century is far from complete and our daily lives are not as removed from the authoritarian past as we’d like to believe.

From → Wealth & Poverty

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