Celebrate Inequality: It’s Been Good for Us All!

2016-09-22 11:20

The plethora of myths that ruling politicians circulate tells us at a glance why our national performance is abysmal at so many levels. We are raised on platitudes that serve those in quest of influence and not very much else. The incessant white noise about “social justice”, “transformation”, “restitution”, “neo colonialism”, “white monopoly capital”, “imperialism”, ”inequality” and the like – along with laws to address these contrived evils and promote government causes - places a functional society beyond our reach. Individuals are replaced with abstractions and vapidity.

And so the nation’s fortunes, and more especially the economy, continue to lurch from bad to worse and add to the already huge opportunity cost to South Africans since 1994.

Why should this be so?

Because each platitude ignores the fact that people and groups of people are different and that in such diversity there is much potential. Indeed, such diversity should be embraced as a national asset rather than a weakness or evil to be addressed by fiat and misguided laws.

But instead, truth is denied.

My personal favourite among the fables is the demon of “inequality”.

Its antithesis, “equality” has taken on motherhood status, with everyone being for it, and no one against, which is bizarre, since equality is universally absent and inequality conversely pervasive. Even people in near homogeneous societies remain unique in their own right and profoundly “unequal” in many important ways, since people are themselves definitively unique. Anyone heard of DNA?

The "inequality" hype probably comes from the Bible and religious teachings; remember pronouncements like “all men are created equal in God’s eyes”? Obviously, such mandates lacked substance from the get go but people were ignorant and, in common with many religious precepts, subscribed to the delusional. It is nice sounding nonsense - but persuasive and comforting.

Surprisingly, the very irrationality of such dogmas seem to imbue leadership figures of the day with a measure of power and persuasion - which is why politicians love them. Donald Trump is an example of “post-truth” political-speak which divorces fact from (his) opinion and promotes the latter. Facts matter less than what feels right or rolls off the tongue. Our own ruling ethos is very similar and our politicians as vacuous.

Of course, in the South African (and indeed the western) context we can understand where hype around “inequality” comes from. Although the unfolding of history was foreordained, the rules of the game were perceived as unjust because of socio-cultural asymmetries between those vanquished and those doing the subjugating. Colonialism was harsh and brutal and inequalities were laid bare.

Understandably, and courtesy of changing values, a preoccupation with “inequality” has evolved from a guilt complex in the wake of the imperial age. In recent times this has been helped on by the much vaunted Gini coefficient, which quantifies relative income inequalities between a nation’s inhabitants. (the Gini coefficient is a red herring, which I have dismissed in previous posts because low coefficient nations - ostensibly "good" news - can be universally dirt poor and high coefficient nations - ostensibly “bad” news” - can include rich and poor with little or no extreme poverty.

Some examples of wrongs that were considered OK at the time should make the point about how values change.

Example 1

I am reminded of the fact that some 150 years ago European hunter explorers roamed the savannah and brought once abundant numbers of indigenous mammals to the brink of extinction. At the time they were engaging in “sport”, opening up the interior and sometimes claimed to even be spreading “the word of the Lord” to the indigenous population. Today we scramble to save the remains of the rhino population and secure our game parks for posterity.

Example 2

Early in the 20th century the German occupying forces in Damaraland carried out the genocides of Herero and Nama peoples in retribution for their rebelling against their authority - driving them into the desert to succumb to thirst and starvation. Up to 100000 are thought to have died. Recently the German state acknowledged the atrocities and apologised.

Example 3

The institution of slavery - well document and general knowledge to most - was abolished in the west only in the mid-19th century (although it still survives elsewhere).

These examples demonstrate not only paradigm shifts in public attitude, but the rapidity of such changes. Whereas they were accepted at the time as being normal , they today invite condemnation and revulsion. What people did in bygone times to earn praise and accolades, today often qualifies them as criminals – even war criminals or criminals against humanity.

Thus one can reject the ephemeral notion of “equality” simply on the grounds that it cannot last; it defies cultural evolution. Societies, economies and institutions are dynamic, so how would “equality” – a non-dynamic and relational notion - get out of the blocks?

Enforced “equality” - assuming it could be achieved for even a short time - would require everyone’s values to change in concert and move in sympathy as paradigms shift – a ridiculous notion.

On that basis “equality” of outcomes, as is promoted in South Africa can only serve to inhibit the workings of society - which is what we have seen happen over the past twenty odd years. “Equality” is thus an ephemeral, moving target that is neither achievable nor desirable. In fact, it is harmful.

So - you might well ask - why “celebrate” inequality, as I am suggesting?

Because from constructive inequality, everybody stands to benefit from exposure to others; asymmetries ignite development and growth and almost everyone gets to be better off - even if unequally so and over time. When, on the other hand, everyone is preoccupied with "being equal” and looking over the shoulder to see if someone is getting more than they, a few things begin to happen.

Firstly smart people stop trying as hard because they are berated for stepping out of line; being smarter and working harder. This is the “tall poppy” syndrome.

More importantly, the focus moves from innovative and enterprising behaviour to defensive and coercive behaviour - ensuring that everyone follows the script passed down by politicians, those in authority or under societal group pressure.

The “equality” measures fostered by South African state and government institutions illustrate this point; they have generated nothing that resembles equality. On the contrary, they create inequality and represent an unambiguous means to reallocate according to race, colour and patronage connections without merit coming into the equation. That applies whether the targeted resource is income, work opportunities or ownership of business interests - to mention but some. These measures also promote corruption and bad government because the sovereignty of the individual is undermined. The most talented people in society lose interest.

Our lawmakers strive – misguidedly and out of ideological ignorance - for racial proportionality on the assumption that all ethnicities have equal configurations of talent, aptitude and appetites for work. It thus becomes no more than a politically sanitised form of extortion, the main bye product of which is a failed economy. The “equality” imperative is therefore the moving force behind parastatal bailouts, poor service delivery, corruption, zero economic growth, high unemployment and so on.

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. Historic inequalities have benefited our population and are everywhere to be found – for those with eyes to see and a mind to understand.

Provided we can agree that it is good to enjoy peace and prosperity in a structured and organised society, it is thanks to historical inequalities between advanced and less developed societies that we have got this far and enjoy many of the benefits of life as we know it. It is these very inequalities we have to thank for modern cities, schools, transport networks, universities, governing institutions and a functional, non subsistence exchange economy.

Government’s glib and superficial desire for overt and essentially meaningless (but costly) “equality” has already taken a toll on our fledgling democracy’s finances and the welfare of its citizens. Now even worse is unfolding as our universities burn in the “transformation” cause (another platitudinous and destructive notion). With protesters claiming to oppose a colonial legacy and promoting their dubious agendas, they actually threaten not only tertiary education, but are setting back Africa’s development for years to come. And at the root of it all is a failure to recognise that our “colonial legacy” is a key element in our socio-economic evolution, our cultural competence, future progress and relationship with the world at large.

The quest for “equality” (and “transformation”!) constitutes a futile and costly grab at empty and false notions. It is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth), other - that is - than a road to obscurity and destruction.

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