A car drives out of the parking garage. It’s huge, squared, black with a grey painted bonnet. A Rolls Royce. The guard of the parking garage runs to the exit and blocks all traffic on the road so the Rolls can drive away easily, the driver gives him a bit of money for it. It’s an easy job today, the only traffic on the road is a small cart, pushed by a bedraggled, scrawny, barefooted man. His cart is nothing more than a cage on four wheels, with bags hooked to it at all sides. It is used to collect reusable garbage. When the Rolls has passed, the skinny man walks to the garbage bins next to the exit of the garage. He looks into them, takes out the plastic bags with garbage and tears them open. He collects what he can use: empty tins, plastic bottles, cardboard and utensils he might be able to repair. He puts everything in the bags or in the cage. The guard has collected a large bag full of empty bottles, but to take these, he has to pay and he doesn’t have the money. The bag will go to another garbage collector who does have a bit of money. Slowly the man continues his way, past the parked Lexuses, Range Rovers and the occasional Bentley or Porsche. This is the daily view from my balcony.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; the beginning of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Well, born equal maybe, but after that the misery starts. Human beings don’t have equal chances in their lives and that leads to unequal outcomes.
People are not equal, they differ in their capacities. Physical capacities, like muscles or agility, but also mental capacities, like intelligence or empathy. They have different talents, some are better in music or in arts, while others are good at mathematics or writing. Every person is unique, but to what extent is that a justification for political, social or economic inequality? Is that inequality driven by the individual capacities of people, or is there something more to it?
It might be that inequality has a function, makes a meaningful contribution to society. When very difficult or demanding functions or functions for which special, scarce talents are required, are rewarded more, the best people are attracted to these jobs (which is the argument for the remuneration of CEOs, bankers or soccer players) and the best results for society are reached. The problem is, that this just isn’t true for many forms of inequality. One might ask what is the difference in utility to society between professional soccer players and professional handball players, but you can make up a story for that (worldwide number of spectators or something like that). However, inequalities exist for which that making up a story about utility to society doesn’t work anymore. A white, heterosexual man, born in America has an average life expectancy double that of a black African woman. Women in Pakistan are not allowed to leave their houses, while their husbands wander around as they like. The sons and daughters of high-ranking politicians in developing countries can afford a life of decadency while their countrymen starve. Immigrants have to apply twice as much to land a job. It is difficult to imagine these inequalities are based on individual capacities and being useful to society, there has to be something more to it.
Inequality does not just exist between individual people, it also exists between groups of people. Many types of distinction between groups are possible. Gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality are all social constructions that can be used to differentiate in social, economic and sometimes even political status. This social-constructivist vision means that the appreciation of groups and hence the appreciation of inequality, is acquired. Acquired by the reactions of society, and maintained by that same society. Hence, inequality in this form is much more difficult to change than when it would only be about individual differences between people. The fact that some kinds of inequality persist over the lifetime of individuals is another indication of this mechanism. Still, even this kind of inequalities can change, for the good or for the worse. Think about the perception of older people. Once valued and respected for their wisdom and experience, now often described as old fashioned, slow, unhealthy. Who knows what the future will bring now the economic status of older people is improving?
There is another factor that influences the development of inequality in a society. Power, often based on birth. The European nobility, the Indian cast system, class society or the “old boys network” with people that have known each other all their life, are examples. Cambodia has that kind of society, where the question who your ancestors are is crucial for your chances in your life. It has been like that for a long time, many things happen based on who you know or who your family knows. Getting a job, acquiring permits, being able to stand for a political position, all are decided through a patronage system. People are used to that and for a long time didn’t ask questions about it. That is changing now because of the fast economic growth that makes inequalities much more visible, see the example I started with.
One and a half century ago, Marx predicted that a similarly growing inequality would lead to class struggle and revolution. It didn’t happen and no one believes anymore it will happen like he predicted, but recent history shows that growing inequality still can be the source of large scale conflicts. The Arab Spring was not only, and maybe not even primarily, based on a demand for freedom, it was also based on a demand for jobs, prosperity, economic status by young people who didn’t see a future for themselves. At this moment, the revolution didn’t succeed in the Arab world, but the situation in Cambodia is comparable with a large and growing group of young people who are not satisfied with their economic and political possibilities. The political elite is aware of that and supports small scale reforms, but it still tends to cling to their existing power or even abuse it to maintain their position. The Rolls Royce and the garbage collector will keep running into each other for some time to come.