EARLY DRAFT: PROJECT SYNDICATE: Þe Lack of Vision
The problems—very urgent problems—that the post-plague world has to deal with:
Not satisfied with this yet, but it is the drop-dead date for this, if I am going to get it into the stream. So working away:
In the long-term historical perspective, things should be going right—we are, compared to all human history before a century or so ago, immensely wealthy. Yet things seem to be going badly wrong.
For the first ten-thousand years after the invention of agriculture, nothing that anyone would ever recognize as approaching utopia was within humanity’s grasp. In ours and in our parents’ and our grandparents’ lifetimes, however, it is come near. Yet we continue to fail to grasp it. And we will continue to fail to grasp for a, as my friend the late Max Singer used to say, a “truly human world” until we figure out how to shape a collective politics that can handle the task of achieving a fair economic distribution of wealth.
Back up: Until the time of our grandparents, humanity was ensorcelled by the Devil of Malthus. The growth of technology was slow. Mortality was extremely high. In a world in which nearly 1/3 of post-middle age women had no sons or grandsons surviving and hence no social power, pressure to have more children was immense. And so increasing populations and the smaller farm sizes they entailed kept typical living standards low and stagnant, offsetting any gain in productivity and incomes from better technology. The happiest a Malthusian society could be was if customs of late marriage pushed down the birth rate somewhat so that it was sociology rather than biology in the form of malnutrition that was active in restraining further population growth. The happiest the élite of a Malthusian society could be was if the extraction of wealth from the farmers and craftsmen went smoothly, so that the élite at least could have enough.
Flash-forward to today: We are almost through the demographic transition: Malthusian population pressure no longer keeps us poor. Our productivity and technology vastly exceeds that of all previous generations: at a minimum, by two generations hence we will have seen as much proportional growth in our technological powers since 1870—itself a technologically advanced and industrializing world—as was seen since the beginning of the great out-of-Africa migration 50,000 years ago and 1870. There is in much of the world, and will soon for the entire world, be enough: enough food that nobody need be hungry, enough clothing that nobody need be cold, enough shelter that nobody need be wet, enough medicine that few need die before three-score-and-ten, enough information and entertainment that nobody need be bored, and enough other resources that everyone can create. It is true that there may not be enough prestige to satisfy some, and that there surely will not be enough envy to satisfy others who are spiteful, but if we are willing to settle for respect, than there is no reason for an arrangement of society in which anybody feels disrespected and dissed.
Yet things appear to be going badly wrong.
First, the wealth we currently have is absurdly, appallingly, criminally maldistributed around the globe. That our bottom billion—smartphones and public health, which are very important, aside—do not like that much better than our pre-industrial Malthusian society ancestors is a crime. It is now 75 years since Harry Truman wisely put global economic development on the Global North’s task list. And while we should be extremely happy that the global south is today much much richer than it was back in 1945, we should be tremendously disappointed that the proportional gap today is as large as or larger than it was back then.
Second, the world has failed to build global governmental institutions to manage the world-scale problem of global warming. It could have been handled at very low cost a generation ago. Now it will be tremendously destructive, and tremendously costly to either stem or to adapt to. And to what end? Merely to preserve the wealth of robber barons who own carbon-energy wells and mines.
Third, even within the rich Global North we face apparently unsolvable problems of distributing the enormous wealth modern postindustrial technologies and economies create. The neoliberal belief—surprisingly, strong around 1980—that a more-unequal society would release immense entrepreneurial energies has been a flop. But the shift back toward a wealth distribution that accords with well-being, utility, and what people deserve has been stopped.
It has been stopped politically: as a result of political mobilizations around the principle that some of society’s non-rich do not deserves more but deserve even less—whether Hispanics and African-Americans in the United States, Muslims in India, Turks in Britain, or “rootless cosmopolites” insufficiently rabid in their public displays of allegiance to blood-and-soil nationalism everywhere. The hopes that equals could be treated equally has into the Aristotelian principle that it is unjust to treat unequals equally, and a widespread belief that Thomas Jefferson was wrong in his Declaration-of-Independence assertion of natural equality.
And it has been stopped economically: the hope that technology, capital, and labor would always be complements because every non-human powered machine and every information-processing task needed to be at least supervised by a human brain appears to have been vain. Our information-processing technologies are beating our educational system, badly.
These are the big problems facing humanity in what will be the post-plague decades. But, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1933, quoting Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” From where will the vision arise?