I’ve been thinking a little more about what it would really mean if we were all serious about saying (as the Founding Fathers of the US said) that all “men”– for which, read “all humans”– are created equal, and are endowed equally with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I was just reading the 2005 edition of the UN development Program’s Human Development Report. Table 14 at the back there tells us that the annual Gross Domestic Product of the whole world is US$36.06 trillion– or,if you count something called “Purchasing Power Parity dollars”it comes to PPP$51.15 trillion. (These are figures for 2003.)
Given a world population of just over 6.3 billion souls, the global GDP per capita comes to US$5,801, or PPP$8,229. That is the value of all the goods and services produced in the world in a year (now, not changed much from 2003.)
So if your household’s income is less than PPP$8,229 per capita, then you’re getting the short end of the economic stick, globally speaking. If it is more, then you’re a person of privilege.
Okay, I’m a person of privilege.
In 2003, the GDP per capita in the US came to PPP$37,562. Of course, we know it is very unevenly distributed within the US. (Indeed, Table 15 tells us that the richest 10% of Americans enjoy 29.9% of the nation’s income or consumption; and the proportion between the income enjoyed by the richest 10% to that enjoyed by the poorest 10% is 15.9 to 1, by far the highest for any of the OECD countries.)
By contrast, the average GDP per capita in the 32 countries listed in the Report as being of “Low human development”– and I hope to heck there’s no-one out there reading this who takes this to be a moral judgment??– is just PPP$1,046. That is, just 2.78% of the per-capita PPP GDP within the US.
So, let’s go back 13 years, to 1990. That year, according to the 1993 Human Development Report, the real GDP per capita in the US was PPP$21,449 (Table 1). In the countries described as “least developed” it was PPP$740, or 3.45% of what it was in the US.
Clearly, gaps are getting wider.
Clearly, too, these gaps in income, which accumulate year after year after year into ever larger gaps in wealth, leave the US and other rich countries– some of which, I should note, have a slightly higher per-capita GDP than the US, though these are much smaller countries– but the ever accumulating gaps in wealth between the uber-rich and the uber-poor leave the rich countries much, much more capable of intervening economically in the affairs of the poorest countries… And they (we) do this in many ways, including by keep the international trade rules firmly stacked against poor-country producers of most primary goods.
In terms of the “ability to intervene economically”, too, I think the “raw” US$ figures of per-capita GDP in any country are a stronger indicator of their relative susceptibility to US intervention than the PPPS figures. For example, if a gringo goes into any of the many low-income countries where the cost of living is relatively low (in dollar terms), then he or she can exert a lot more influence by waving $100 around there than s/he could get by doing the same in a (much more expensive) West European country.
… Well, deeply embedded and continuing economic inequalities are only dimension of the present inequalities among the world’s peoples. But I’ve been thinking about human equality/inequlity quite a lot over recent months (okay, most of my life, to be truthful.) Some years ago, when I was toying with the idea of doing a Ph.D. in philosophical ethics, I took a course that involved a lot of close reading in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Rawls, who died a couple of years ago, was a leading icon of US political philosophy. He was a longtime Harvard prof, and Theory of Justice was his best-known work by far.
Back when I was reading it 8 years or so ago, I found it intriguing, but I disagreed fairly strongly with some of his general dispositions; mostly, I should say, with his ontology. His view of “the human condition” was very much in the tradition of the English empiricists, those dear old (always unmarried) Anglican clergymen like Locke, Hobbes etc who viewed “men”– for such was the subject of their enquiry– as quintessentially individualistic, self-generating, and self-sufficient beings. (I guess they never stopped to speculate about the ontological standing of the women who must have washed their socks for them, and fed them– let alone the mothers whose tireless labor had raised them from infancy and endowed them with all the basic tools of the language by which they later made their living… Oh well.)
Myself, I always was much more of a feminist communitarian. I love Seyla Ben-Habib’s takedowns of Hobbes and Locke; Margaret Walker, Sara Ruddick, and all those other feminist philosophers whose works are notably NOT taught in philsophy departments dominated by a rigidly “analytical” approach.
So anyway, I had a bunch of criticisms of Rawls that I argued out in various forms at the time. But now, looking back, I think maybe it’s time to reconnect with a couple of his key insights, and try to bring them more to life within the US discourse.
He centers his argument about the nature of “justice” around a clever educational device that he calls the “veil of ignorance.” Basically, he says that if you try to imagine what a just social order might look like, you should imagine that all the people in the world encounter each other in an initial deliberation in which they don’t know the details of their own social situation. So since you don’t know, in this thought experiment, whether you might be male or female, rich or poor, black-skinned or white-skinned, able-bodied or disabled, you would want to minimize your chances of getting “the short end of the stick” by legislating some kind of social order in which, regardless of your condition, your interests would not be totally ignored… and on this basis, a generally “fair” and perhaps even somewhat “caring” social order would emerge.
Nearly all of this argument was set within a national community. I don’t recall whether he stated this, or whether it was strongly implied, instead. Toward the very end of his life, Rawls wrote a book called, I think, “The Law of Nations” in which he attempted to use a similar device to construct some form of a “world order”. But I don’t think anyone took that latter work, which was really poorly argued and disorganized, very seriously.
Maybe we could do a Rawlsian thought experiment at the global level, though? Not– as Rawls had done in the Law of Nations, by considering the basic “negotiating unit” to be each nation, but taking it as being each person in the world…. If you had a real chance that, after the removal of the “veil of ignarance” you might indeed find yourself to be a Guatemalan subsistence farmer or a disabled Congolese child… then how would you order the world and its priorities?
I wonder how people in rich, secure western countries would respond when invited seriously to take part in such a thought experiment. I know Oxfam and similar organizations do things like dinners where people are randomly assigned a heaping plate, or a half-empty plate, or a plate with just a few grains of old rice on it, and then they use that to start talking about global economic inequalities…
But I think it’s probably still true that most westerners (a) don’t really like to think much about things like that, (b) don’t even know that much about the lives of people in low-income countries that they could start to really even imagine what it would be like to be one of them, and (c) might have at the back of their minds some version of the Calvinist view that people who have a lot of worldly goods somehow “deserve” to have them, while people who do not, somehow “deserve” not to.
.. Well, I realize I’m not coming to any answers here. But still, I think it’s really important as we approach the next phase of global affairs, to start thinking about what a world order truly based on the principle of human equality would or should look like. There are so many dimensions of this issue! Stay tuned…