Saturday, April 2, 2011

Socio-Economic Class in Human Society II

In the last post we discussed the first stage in the development of human society, where men distinguished themselves through physical strength or ability in war to become leaders. Heredity provided a leader’s family with some prestige security, but it was not until the elite began to accumulate wealth through ownership of land that they were able to separate themselves permanently from the lower class.

So, what remained, then, was for the non-wealthy class to differentiate itself. This process eventually produced a class of nobility and a middle class which was able to separate itself from the poor. In many societies slaves were added along the way to form a permanent underclass, sitting beneath the lowest class of freemen. In the end, a fully differentiated socio-economic model resulted, which was the parent of the human society we have today.

There were two main drivers for the differentiation of the lower classes: demand for goods and services by the wealthy and demand for community-wide specialized skills resulting from growth of the population. The wealthy were interested in the goods required to support the prestige of their position – fancy clothing, exotic foods, jewelry, perfume, transportation, and tutors for their children. They also had idle time which needed to be filled by social events, travel, or sport.

The lower class become differentiated above the level of the common laborer when its most able members realized that they could use their unique skills to earn money. Those who were good with their hands could become carpenters, while those with a good ear could become musicians. Analytical types might become accountants or money lenders. All of this was possible because a densely packed population could feed itself from the output of the local farmer. Man now had the time develop his skills, because he didn’t have to look for food.

As crafts developed, some were more prized than others, so the individuals with those skills could expect to earn more money. Some crafts, by their nature, were looked down upon. For example, undertakers and butchers were considered inferior, while those engaged in intellectual pursuits were admired. To the wealthy, all skills not engaged in by them were seen as lowly, especially those where a man had to get his hands dirty.

The Nobility was a sub-class consisting of those individuals who were able to climb above the rest of the middle class. One might call this group “new money” describing a recent status change as opposed to the “old money” of the permanently wealthy. The nobility included those who were either intelligent or resourceful enough to rise to a position of authority or wealth. During the period of the Roman Republic, the Knights (Equites) were the nobility class. Originally cavalry men who were wealthy enough to buy horses and equipment, the knights later took the role of businessmen, working at professions deemed inferior by the patricians, but necessary to them. Cicero was a classic example. Raised as a pleb, he so impressed the elites by his legal skill and oratory, he was elevated to the nobility.

Lastly, we have the development of a slave class, always the lowest class in any society. Slavery can have several definitions, but we will use Aristotle’s as a typical example.

“A slave is a living possession, who is by nature not his own but another’s and yet a man”

Slavery was a bi-product of the maturing human society and did not exist before man developed agriculture. The reason is a practical one in that nomadic tribes had no way to manage slaves while they were on the move. Without close management, slaves would attempt to escape whenever the opportunity arose.

In the history of human society slavery has two types - intra-tribal and extra-tribal. Intra-tribal slavery occurs when members of a community lose their status and fall into a subservient position. An example would be someone who cannot repay his debts or commits a serious crime. Extra-tribal slavery occurs when one group is defeated in war by another and is absorbed into the victor’s population.

Often, the existence of a slave class has an adverse effect on the society. As unpaid laborers, the slaves contribute to high productivity, but they also displace the lower classes from the job market. During the Roman Republic, the accumulation of wealth among a few patricians and their use of slave labor to work their estates led to the death of the small farm and the unemployment of the small farmer. Eventually, there was an exodus of displaced persons to Rome where they became restless urban poor.

Socio-Economic Class in Human Society

We need to let the Spartans rest for a while and move on to other things, namely a discussion of socio-economic class in the history of human society. A pioneer in studying the subject was Gunnar Landtman, the first modern sociological anthropologist. Landtman was Finnish (1878-1940) and he is best known for his study of the cultural behavior of the Papuan tribes of the Pacific. This, and other research he performed, became the basis for one of his best known works, The Origin of the Inequality of the Social Classes.

So, we will dedicate a couple of posts to discussing Landtman’s work. Why? Because the ancient societies developed via the dynamics Landtman describes. Understanding these dynamics not only gives us a view into the early political systems, but also describes what we see in society today. The forward motion of any culture and its political system is constrained by the inherent nature of human beings. If you take geography, climate, and natural resources as catalysts, mix in a large group of people, you get a culture that reflects the character of the environment experienced through those people. One need only reflect on the deserts surrounding Egypt, the mountains of Greece, or the inland position of Rome to understand this.

Landtman starts with the notion of equality as a measure of human society. What is equality? We know that people are not physically or mentally equal, so how can they be equal in society? We can create laws that apply to everyone, but still some will be find an advantage or disadvantage in those laws. In America, we like to think we have equal opportunity, which is a practical form of equality, but even here we must admit that opportunities are only equal for those with equal capabilities and an equal starting point.

As Landtman tells us:

“It is true that, in a certain measure, individual and social differences go together. In every society a man’s social status is more or less influenced by his personal qualifications. People hold an individual of superior ability in higher esteem than others, and value his opinion, whereas the worthless are looked down upon. From the sociological point of view such an individual inequality appears in every respect natural, and consequently unavoidable. We may safely venture the assertion that no human society has ever existed or will ever exist where the social standing and influence of the different individuals does not vary according to their personal merits or demerits.”

Aristotle said, “For that some should rule and other be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

This reality will work against reformers who attempt to abolish the social classes and make us all equal. As Landtman points out, the irony of class leveling is that the most primitive societies have class equality inherent in their structure, but the more developed a society becomes, the more difficult it is to break down class distinctions.

What is it that begins class development progress? Let’s go back to a primitive society, most likely nomadic, where there are no class distinctions. In the beginning, we see the rising of those who are able to use their exceptional qualities to gain influence over other men. The most obvious examples are physical strength and leadership, which are critical in time of war. Every tribe has to protect itself and fight other tribes for dominance. It may lose if weak or win if strong. The leaders on the winning side earn admiration and move into a “class by themselves”. When they have become separated of from others based on perceived status, we have the beginning of a class system. The leader’s trophies of war serve as physical reminders for others who is superior.

Like leadership and courage in war elevate an individual in society and separate him from peers, weakness and cowardice have the opposite effect. Those who may have some superior talents find themselves lowered in status or outcast by their negative traits.

Heredity also plays a part in validating superior status. Those individuals born into “old” families have prestige over those born into “new” families because older families have generations of proof to demonstrate their pedigree. This allows them to avoid the scrutiny placed on the offspring of new families. Although heredity may give some sanction to a family and its leaders, its tradition is still tied to the accomplishments of each generation. One or more failures and the chain is broken.

Acquiring wealth is the most permanent way to insure superior status in a society. In ancient times wealth came from property and property separated a man’s status from his physical attributes. Even though the first landholders were leaders, their wealth was passed on to later generations who may not have possessed the same physical skills. Of course, the ownership of land could not become a factor in creating social class until man had given up his nomadic ways and settled in a particular location. Like today, land and the wealth derived from it accumulates quickly so the wealthy become separated from the masses in a few generations. Those lacking wealth were an undifferentiated population – separate from the elite but equal among themselves.

After a time, we ended up with what Aristotle describes below.
“Those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends and the like, are neither able or willing to submit to authority… On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme are degraded. So that one class cannot obey and can only rule despotically; the other knows not to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying.”

We see that the first socio-economic class developed in human society consisted of a wealthy class built through the accumulation of land which was passed on through generations. The masses would not be able to differentiate themselves until population density created demand for a differentiated worker class and the wealthy desired goods an undifferentiated lower class could not provide. Without power over the wealthy, the lower classes could not demand the rights that come with a democratic government. It would take centuries for that power to become a force for change.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Leveling Society and its Effects

Toynbee, in his chapter titled Social Effects of the Lycurgan Reforms, wrote the following:

“A tug-o’-war between public and private interests at Sparta gradually produced the peculiar Spartan spirit in which the way of life was reflected. The pressures that, at Sparta, were stamping human nature with this peculiar imprint became more and more severe as Sparta’s situation, within her own dominions and abroad, became more and more difficult. But even the utmost turn of the screw could not change human nature. All that it could do was to repress nature; and, if and when the pressure was removed or was even just relaxed, the rebound of human nature was correspondingly violent.”

This quote, as it relates to the Spartans, will be discussed in the next post, but I will use it here to reference the political situation in the United States today. As my readers know, one of the themes of this blog is “relating ancient history to today”. This is one of those comparison points -- the situation where the American Progressive movement is hard at its attempt to implement neo-socialism in America. Neo-socialism, in my use, refers to government control of industry rather than the more classic definition of government ownership. We see government now controlling health care, wanting to control our relationship to the environment, these initiatives to be funded by a re-distribution of wealth through taxation. My first inclination is to suggest that these programs are too idealistic for human nature and will, in the end, be ineffective, but we’ll have to analyze this further.

I wrote about Marx in a post called Karl Marx Redux on September 3, 2009. In that article I discussed Marx’s lack of knowledge of antiquity, and stated that if he would have known the history, he would have realized his own theory was suspect. By theory I mean his notion that people can somehow be made socio-economically equal in a society -- that we can create a system where all people have an equal standing and the rich and poor are eliminated as constituencies. According to Marx, a revolution is supposed to occur by the force of human will when the lower classes become galvanized to overcome repression at the hands of the wealthy and their evil corporations. We all know how the story ends. Communism turned out to be the antithesis of equally when it was implemented via an autocratic bureaucracy.

Today, we have a different force at work; theoretical ideas of the left wing elitist academic class, who believes that leveling society is “the right thing to do”. This fairness doctrine is defined as the rich do not deserve their wealth so as much of it as possible should be taken for the benefit of lower classes.

Communism failed because it was idealistic and did not take into account human behavior. European socialism worked for a time, but now it has run out of money and is experiencing the economic impact of inefficiency. So why are we trying to duplicate something that no longer works in Europe?

The fundamental problem with neo-socialism are that it represents an unrealistic view of man in society AND its attempts to create human leveling are doomed to failure because they can only be inefficiently implemented, and, in the end, will not accomplish their purpose.

I call neo-socialism unrealistic because it imagines that if society were leveled, people would be better off. Somehow the have-nots by becoming haves would be happy. Of course, the main assumption behind this is that they desire to live in this new “leveled” society and be the haves. How well the new haves will be able to manage themselves, after they have been pulled out of a lifestyle that was familiar and placed into one that is foreign is open to question.

In the real world, human nature is quite divergent. People’s accomplishments depend on their intelligence and personality type. These two factors largely determine where a person ends up (as long as he hasn’t been born rich) and there is little that society can do to change this equation. Obviously, there are exceptions; a child who escapes the ghetto to enroll in Harvard Medical School being an obvious example. Still, the majority combine their birth situation, family experience, environment, intelligence, and personality traits to achieve what they achieve, and government proscribing their ultimate placement in society is not only unrealistic but a violation of basic human rights. An artificial “leveler” is as silly as Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Let’s set up our leveling system and see how it works. We said we would have the tax rates adjusted to take money from the rich and re-distribute it to the poor. What amount is to be taken? Is a fair amount $ 1,000 per rich person or $ 10,000? How do we decide who to give the money to? Do we start with the poorest, maybe the homeless, and give them money first? How do we know when they have enough money? When they can pay for an apartment? Or when their apartment is full of furniture and they have purchased a car?

The bottom 22% of the American population (yearly income) has about 16,700,000 families. These are people who make less than $ 30,000 per year. The median income of all Americans is $ 65,000, so should we raise the lowest 22% up to the median? If we assume the median income of the lowest 22% is $ 15,000 per year, then it will take $ 50,000 x 16.7 million families or $ 835,000,000,000 to raise the lowest 22%. We still have 28% more families to take care of who are below the median.

Now we have to come up with a mechanism to manage the leveling, so we will create a government bureaucracy to handle the task. This bureaucracy will need tens of thousands of employees to keep track of everything. If person A becomes a “have” he has to be taken off the have-nots list, but remain in monitor status to make sure he doesn’t split back. If he does, the flow of money to him has to begin again. At all times, we will have new haves being monitored, have-nots being funded, and old rich haves giving up their money. Oh yea, we’ll have to monitor the old haves too because they may slip into have-not status.

This all sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

In the real world the rich would have their taxes raised to generate the required $ 835 billion. Then Congress would have to decide how to distribute that money through programs it would create. There would be programs for education, programs for housing, programs for food distribution, and programs for jobs. Wouldn’t those programs have to have a lot of complicated rules? How would they be managed to insure successful outcomes? Wouldn’t they be inefficient like every other bureaucracy?

The other question we have to ask is “How comfortable are we with the permanence of this solution?” In other words is this a teleological (end justifies the means) or deontological (means justifies the ends)? Those on the side of the former are on shaky ground because we cannot predict the long term outcome of a radical re-structuring of a society. Those on the side of the latter can prove their point if there are benefits to society as we move along toward the future. But reality is reality and what will happen will happen.

Today’s western society is in its youth compared to the ancient societies. The Greek Polis lasted 500 years – Rome between Republic and Empire 1000 years. Modern western society had its beginning with the American revolution, a mere two hundred and forty-four years ago. If you read the ancient histories, you know that political systems evolve, as Polybius suggested. Each one has a beginning, middle, and end according to the forces at work on the culture. Radical changes can be effective for a time, but as Toynbee suggests, circumstances spring people back to an equilibrium state at some point.