Brief Thoughts on Fairness, Equality & Hierarchy

Another day, another semi-coherent ramble. These thoughts need tightening up and some underlying structure added. But I thought I’d put them down as something to do in an evening.

Climb that social ladder

Ape societies are naturally hierarchical. This refutes the pre-Fall equality that characterised early Christian thought and continued into “noble savage” philosophies of later eras. Plato & Aristotle were on the right path.

However, Plato and Aristotle were writing from positions of privilege; they were not slaves but reasonably well-off men. Their concluding views appear to support the societal structure that worked out well for them. This bias may not have been conscious. Their arguments have been used for millennia by the aristocracy to support rule by the aristocracy. That should at least make us pause and seek out an opinion from the other side.

Hierarchies in all ape societies are a curious mixture of nature and nurture. Stronger apes tend to occupy higher social positions; executives of companies are taller and more attractive than their peers. But the shuffle of the genes means that intelligence, aptitude and physical prowess also emerge relatively randomly across the hierarchy. And fate can take as well as give; diseases and disasters strike with little regard for simian organisation. These two factors, over time, create the dynamics of politics: every ally is a potential usurper and everyone wants the rewards of the alpha ape.

What Plato and Aristotle may have ignored was time. They lived in a static and eternal universe. The nature hierarchies were always there. The aristocracy was in its proper unchanging place. But what happens when our hierarchies change over time with fate and the cards of nature? The glorious meritocracy. The belief structure of the modern aristocracy: we are at the top because the game of life has shown we are the best. Just as long as no one notices the game is rigged.

Time is also the downfall of meritocracy as a belief system for political organisation. Over time good luck clusters and compounds. If you are born into a stable country and family, have stable finances, food and housing, your benefits will feedback: you are more likely to get an education and find a job that at least matches your advantage. If you are able to increase your advantage by a few percent per year, then you can double your standing over a generation. If fate takes, you are down but not out. Synergies abound: a good genetic hand on intelligence, aptitude and physical prowess plus a stable pathway (give or take) means it is likely you will spend your fertile years mixing with similar levels of the hierarchy, your offspring then have a boost from both sides. This applies to baboons in the Rift Valley and to humans in university campuses and capital cities. The balance is a difficult one, prevent fate causing suffering and you tend to calcify the hierarchies.

Meritocracy also suffers from the lacuna that inflicted Plato and Aristotle: those that are in a position to enter the canon of written thought need an education and freedom from want that is only available at upper echelons of the hierarchy. Even if hierarchies are “natural”, if those at the bottom unduly suffer, are they “right”? Many simian studies show that life at the lower rungs leads to more stress and early death. Supporters of “natural” hierarchies tend to lack an awareness of life below their position, and seldom ask the question of whether these hierarchies benefit everyone.

John Rawls is one of the best for frameworks of justice that support everyone fairly. His famous philosophy can be brutally paraphrased as: design societies so you would be happy if you were randomly assigned to any role within that society. It’s really a twist on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you want them to do unto you (and don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you). Thinking about hierarchies, it becomes: if hierarchies cannot be avoided, structure them to minimise your suffering if you were randomly parachuted into any level (or to maximise your happiness, if you are more optimistic). This works surprisingly well for both ends of the hierarchy – it means we don’t want an overworked President as much as a disease-ridden vagrant. We can also add time back in: design a society where you would be happy to move up and down the levels.

Of course, the struggle is putting these ideas into practice. At any level of the hierarchy all you tend to see are reflections of your self. At higher levels of the hierarchy, the solution for all levels is often: make them more like us; at lower levels, the solution for all levels is often: make them less like us. With limited resources and a dynamic nature-fate tag-team, this is not possible. Indeed, societies founded on an idea of equality tend to be the most unequal. It also discounts truth available at lower levels of the hierarchy, while condoning falsehoods at the higher levels.

Another problem is a natural loss aversion. If you have worked hard to gain wealth or support your family, you naturally balk at any suggestion to redistribute these advantages (at the loss of your family) to those you perceive haven’t put in the effort or sacrifice. Tell most people that they need to take a 10% pay cut for someone else’s benefit and they’ll tell you to piss off. Tell them they have a 5% pay cut but someone else in the hierarchy (up or down) has a 10% cut and they may acquiesce.

Our hierarchies are also nested and local. We care about relative not absolute distance. A lowly ape in a Garden of Eden will socially feel as bad as one in a desert plain (even though the latter’s life expectancy may be much shorter). Those living in run-down estates in Western Europe have a material quality of life that is much better than the favelas of the developing world, but the stress of living in both places is similar. Those critical of immigration often miss this one as well; many migrants to developed countries are actually in the mid-to-upper levels of home hierarchies, the perceived fall in level following immigration leads to psychological suffering despite material progress. It tends to be their children who grow up with improved material circumstances but carry the mental baggage of that suffering. This is an unspoken truth in a rapidly globalising world.

So what can we do?

Nordic countries provide some suggestions. If the hierarchies exist, at least make the distance comprehensible. Reduce the distance along certain dimensions. Encourage mixing across hierarchies. Attempt to avoid Malthusian competition. Have different dimensions of hierarchy that are negatively correlated. Material, intellectual and spiritual dimensions are not always positively correlated. Each may be valid and encouraged. Attempt to avoid policies or behaviour that calcify privilege. Positively invest against clustering (clustering will be fine on its own). Safety nets and public services are generally good (but not necessarily totemic or always good). Use evidence-based policy; ask rather than assume.

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