Unequal and Inequitable

In PeaceAble on October 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Equal and equitable are not the same thing when it comes to the distribution of the world’s resources.  Equal simply means that everyone gets the same share.  If there are twenty-five people and one hundred apples, each person gets four apples.  Equitable means that there is a relationship between the value of each individual’s contribution to the availability or acquisition of the resources and his or her share of them.  If you have twenty-five people and one hundred apples, but one of those people has nurtured and maintained the apple tree, another has picked the apples and a third has delivered them to the distribution center, while the other twenty-two have had no hand in any of that, but have been doing other things of value to the first three, then an assessment would be made of the relative value of each person’s contribution and the apples would be distributed accordingly: perhaps the grower would get six apples, the harvester five, the distributer three, and everyone else two each.

It has been said fairly often that the problem of poverty isn’t that there isn’t enough of the world’s resources to go around, but that they are badly distributed.  The same could be said about the current state of the U.S. economy.  The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough wealth in this country, but that it is badly distributed.  Does this mean that we need to do something about the redistribution of wealth?  Yes.  Peace cannot exist where there is a grossly inequitable distribution of resources; and wealth is simply a measure of that distribution.

Let’s understand, first of all, that all economic systems require the redistribution of wealth in order to survive and prosper.  Wealth tends to move upwards.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Unless an economic system has ways of ensuring that enough of the wealth collecting at the top of the economic hierarchy is redistributed back to the bottom on a regular basis, then more and more people will lose the ability to purchase the goods and services which fuel the economic engine.  This is undisputed economic fact.  The question isn’t whether such redistribution is necessary, but how it should be accomplished.

Pure socialism would argue that all labor and all resources belong to the society as a whole.  In the ideal socialist society, everyone would be motivated by a genuine desire to serve the needs of the society.  They would go to work not for personal profit, but because their work served the greater good.  .  Wages would be irrelevant, because all the society’s resources would be freely distributed according to need.  From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  Such a system would redistribute wealth continuously and immediately so that it would never have the chance to accumulate at the top or stagnate at the bottom.  There would be neither poverty nor great wealth.

Pure free-market capitalism would leave all decisions about redistribution to market forces.  The capitalist, ever mindful of the need to keep refueling the economy, would arrive at a proper balance between accumulation and redistribution according to the value placed on goods, services and labor by the marketplace itself.  The principle means of redistribution would be through the creation of jobs and the management of prices.  Wages would be determined by the economic value attached to the specific labor relative to the real-market cost of goods and services.  In this way, People would be motivated to work by the promise of sufficient wealth to buy the things they needed.  The distribution of resources would be determined relative to the individual’s willingness or ability to perform the labor necessary to earn sufficient wages to purchase what was needed.  Those whose labor created the most value would become wealthy and those whose labor created little value would be poor.  The problems associated with poverty could be managed by a small redistribution of wealth through charitable giving.

Pure socialism imagines a world in which all resources are shared, belong to no one individually, and to everyone equally; a world in which greed is impossible because it would be unthinkable; a world in which the distribution of resources is equal.  Free-market capitalism imagines a world in which resources exist to be exploited by the individual, ownership is establish by that exploitation, first-come, first-served; competition for resources leads inevitably to the ascendance of those best able to use the resources; and greed is simply another name for motivation; a world in which the distribution of resources is equitable.  Of course, we don’t actually live in either of those worlds.

We live in a world that requires a distribution of resources that balances the forces of equality and equitability.  At the moment, that balance doesn’t exist, and the distribution of resources is both unequal and inequitable.

A purely equal distribution of resources can create a generally stable society with a generally static economy.  In the absence of both great wealth and great poverty, however, there is the risk of a leveling out, a sameness of experience that works to inhibit the kinds of conflict that lead to great innovation, great art, and the individual self-actualization that is necessary to becoming fully human and achieving genuine fulfillment; a world in which the lack of an equitable relationship between one’s contribution and one’s compensation can ultimately erode one’s commitment to the greater good.  A purely equitable distribution based on the market value of labor and resources can, in its idealized form, lead to a generally vital economy, but at the expense of a generally unstable society, in which the unequal distribution of resources leads to unrest, even revolution.  If people are motivated first by individual profit and only secondarily by the greater good, then constant competition for resources can lead not to greater innovation or improved goods and services, but by greater manipulation or circumvention of the system itself.

The reality is that there will always be some people who are motivated primarily by self-interest and others who are motivated primarily by a concern for the greater good.  There will also be those who are motivated by their place in the social hierarchy, and those who are motivated by their physical needs.  A society that seeks balance between equal and equitable distribution of resources would start by considering how and where these various motivations intersect in the economy, and use a mix of motivation and regulation to ensure that the redistribution of resources is consistent, and sufficient to keep the economy and the society both generally stable and reliably vital. This would require three difficult assessments.

First, there would need to be a clear differentiation between those vital resources necessary to life, which are the common property of all and not subject to private ownership; and those resources which might reasonably be considered discretionary, privately owned, and market-valued.  For me, the first category would include a clean environment, used sustainably; sufficient food and water and nurturing care to maintain health and vitality; sufficient shelter and protection against dangers both natural and man-made; equality of representation in government and the law; and equal respect and dignity as human beings and members of the society.  The second category would include individual labor; non-vital resources; manufactured goods and the provision of services; and the free use of one’s own property, including material, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.  And there would have to be recognition of the need to resolve inevitable conflicts between these things.

Secondly, there would need to be the establishment of a clear and reasonable baseline for the equal distribution of resources necessary for a minimal standard of living.  Ideally this would be a world-wide effort, but it ought to at least be possible for the wealthiest societies to offer all their citizens a life that includes the essentials, plus a bit more to give them access to those things which promote self-actualization and growth.  It isn’t enough to survive, a society needs to help its citizens thrive as well.  At the moment, the U.S. poverty line is generally acknowledged to be well below what is actually necessary for survival without assistance, and nowhere near what is necessary for real participation in all that the society has to offer.  Almost one in four Americans does not earn enough money to have to pay income taxes.  Nearly sixty percent of families receiving food assistance have at least one working wage-earner, but those wages are not enough to meet basic needs.

Thirdly, there needs to be a realistic and fairly objective assessment of the real value of goods and services, of labor and resources that is not strictly market-driven.  We need to go beyond supply-and-demand to questions of value based on the greater good of the society.  Do we really have a need for good baseball players, for instance, that justifies compensation for their services that is hundreds or thousands of times greater than what we justify for teachers?  If the monetary value we place on something reflects its social or moral value, then what we pay for someone’s labor reflects the society’s social and moral values overall.  Is physical labor more or less valuable than intellectual labor?  Is the actual production of goods or provision of vital services more, or less, valuable than the management and manipulation of money or economic resources?

Then we need to develop strategies and policies that help us to meet the challenges that those assessments would make clear to us.  These would include decisions about taxation, minimum wages, environmental protection and development, the balance between individual needs and social responsibilities and between individual beliefs and the social contract, and about the management of conflicts that arise when people with different needs and different perspectives are all trying to exercise their rights as individual human beings.  None of this is easy and requires dedication to and protection of a social and political system that encourages and facilitates equal and enthusiastic participation by all citizens.  And it requires not just tolerance for our differences, but a recognition that those differences are our most important assets, and the source of our best hope for the future.

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