Saturday, October 13, 2012

Is the Advance in Science & Technology Undermining the Egalitarian Ideal?

There are generally two schools of thought on the issue of social inequality. One group(mostly on the secular right) attributes it mainly to biological/genetic factors while another group(mostly on the secular left) blames it on socio-politico-economic factors. But most people, regardless of their political affiliations, are not purists on the matter. Even most leftists will agree that there are genetic differences among individuals--and some will grudgingly admit there may also be group differences, even if they reject the conventional concept of race. And even the so-called 'race realists' will admit history, environment, and culture must be taken into account.

Even so, what accounts for the rising 'problem'--if indeed it is a problem--of inequality in the world, not least in the modern West(and most notably in the U.S.)?  How did the egalitarian dreams of the early 20th century  become essentially hopeless by the beginning of the 21st century(if not earlier)? What happened to the vision of an American future where all races would finally be equal under just laws and remedial social policies?
There are many places to look for the answers, and the rise of advanced science & technology is one of them.

Social equality/inequality isn't only a measure of ability but of availability. Regardless of one's ability, one can only work within what is availed to him. So, if Sergey Brin had been born into a primitive society, he could have, at most, used his brilliance to fashion better weapons for hunting or digging for water. He might have won special rewards for his efforts, but his wealth wouldn't have been much greater than those of his tribesmen. He might have 100 clam shells while others on average have 50. He might have a better hut, but it would still be made of straw and mut. Even in the Middle Ages, special smarts would have taken a man so far. Before the late modern era, one's high status, power, and privilege in society had more to do with parentage than individual ability. If you were born to noblemen, you were a noblemen. If you were born to peasants, you were almost certain to live your entire life as a peasant. And this could be said of much of even the West even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Because one's elevated status in society had depended on ancestry than ability for as long as anyone could remember, some Enlightenment intellectuals thought the problem of inequality was simply one of aristocratic privilege. If the children of all classes were given equal opportunity to learn and earn with knowledge and reason, they too would be able to rise higher in society. In time, the oppressed poor would rise and the undeserving rich(born into privilege)would fall; eventually, the two groups would meet somewhere in the middle.

But, this view was, at best, only half-true for it was based on a fallacy: since ancestral privileges had been the main agent of inequality for centuries(or as long as men could remember), removing those privileges would lead to equality. Of course, not every Enlightenment thinker fell for this fallacy. If one group, who would later turn to socialism and then communism, believed virtual equality would be possible for all men, another group, the Classical Liberals, understood that a new natural aristocracy would rise in the place of an old one. One variant of this view was called Social Darwinism.

But in an increasingly mass-oriented society, Social Darwinism couldn't appeal to most people; it sounded too grim, like the genetic version of the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination. In the 19th century,  it mainly appealed to the super-rich as it justified their newly attained wealth. The theory suggested the New Rich won the game of wealth and power on the basis of scientific principles that favored the intelligent and energetic over the dumb and/or lazy. But in time, even the super-rich grew less enamored of the idea in a world where mass opinions became increasingly important. Why arouse mass resentment by openly saying, "We are so smart and you're so dumb." And Social Darwinism couldn't have been very appealing to the traditional aristocracy in Europe that increasingly felt threatened by the rise of the bourgeoisie. Besides, in the fast-changing economy, one could as easily lose as win the game. So, if a rich man became a poor man, what did it mean? He went from superior to inferior overnight? Besides, if Social Darwinism was true, the superior super-rich should be having superior children, but many of the children of the super-rich turned out to be nothing special and unable/unwilling to be ruthless and driven as their parents.

So, regardless of whether a society was socialist/communist or capitalist/democratic, the ideal espoused by most people--elites and masses--was one of greater equality. Socialists/communists believed the state should  guarantee, even enforce, equality among the people. They didn't see themselves as working against human nature since they were convinced of the 'scientific fact' that most people are, more or less, equal. So, if there's great social inequality, it is the product of injustice, criminal activity, cheating, connections, corruption,  greed, and lack of scruples--and much less with differences in natural ability. (Later, when it became obvious  to people in communist nations some people are naturally a lot smarter than others, the new rationale for maintaining the communist system was that naturally superior people should work for the good of the whole than for 'greed' of the self. Similarly, even if the American Left were to admit group differences exist in IQ, it will likely come up with new rationales to push for equality: "Individuals/groups born with special gifts must work for good for the whole than for the self out of moral obligation. Since a gifted person didn't earn his natural gift but was 'unfairly' born with it, the fruits of the gift must be shared with those who were 'unfairly' not born with it. And in a way, this is already operative in today's society in a hushed manner. Obama and Sotomayor don't want communism--even if they had the means to turn America communist--because they would merely be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Instead, their real purpose is to keep whites, Jews, gays, and Asians working harder to produce more wealth to 'spread around', mainly to mulattos like himself. And the super-rich support Big Government because spreading some of their wealth around has the effect of buying off what might boil into social rage and resentment: the semi-educated are bought off with government jobs and the lazy dumb poor are bought off with free TVs and TV-dinners. Wall Street, by supporting Obama, kills two birds with one stone. They make the masses believe that a 'socialist' who cares about equality is in power. Thus calmed and dazed by Obama, the people overlook Obama'a massive bailout of Wall Street banksters. But there is a third bird killed with this stone. Though Wall Street supported Obama to hide its massive bailouts--since 'progressives' were far less likely to blow the whistle on Obama 's servility to Wall Street--, conservatives stood up for Wall Street as being 'unfairly' attacked by Obama. How Wall Street toyed with conservative minds--especially of the Tea Party--was no different from what the Zionists did. Jews made Obama president but also convinced conservatives that Obama is a 'stealth Muslim' out to hurt Israel. So, dumb conservatives stand up for Jews in the name of protecting them from Obama, the man who became president with the support of Jews.)  As for the capitalist/democratic West, especially in America, the prevailing idea was that everyone could 'make it' if he tried hard enough. Even if most people couldn't be the next Carnegie or Rockefeller, he could do well for himself if he got an education and worked hard. And in the post-war years, it seemed like most Americans would become part of the vast middle class, with only a few people being poor(but not too poor) or rich(but not too rich).
With more people attending colleges and with job markets opening up everywhere, it looked as though America was headed toward greater equality. And in Europe, with the total demolition of the Old Order(that had only been half-destroyed in WWI) in WWII, there was hope for a new and better Europe, and the vast expansion of the middle class all across Europe seemed to validate this. And despite the horrors of Stalinism,   USSR and Iron Curtain nations by the Sixties had stabilized into societies where most people were provided with the basic necessities of life. The world seemed to be middle-classing under both capitalism and socialism. It didn't matter if it was the US, Sweden, or the Soviet Union. It seemed like the future belonged to the expanding middle, and some even said US would become more like the USSR and USSR would become more like the US.

So, why did this ideal and trend fail? Among the many reasons, we need to look at science and technology. Consider science and technology in the late 19th century. Despite the proliferation of complex theories, formulas, and machines, most of them weren't so difficult that a reasonably bright person with education couldn't understand and even master them. It didn't take a genius to understand steam engine, basic laws of electricity, and steel-making. It wasn't easy but far from impossible. Through the dint of hard work and dedication, most men could master the latest knowledge and hope to become somebody. And throughout much of the 20th century, it was this fact and factor that made it possible for Japan and Soviet Union to catch up with the West so quickly. Laying down railroads, building steel factories, and making basic machine parts didn't require genius. Though innovators in the West made great fortunes, there were lots of competitors since ingenuity could make up for lack of genius. One is or isn't a genius, but even an average person can, though hard work and inspiration, chance upon ingenuity. Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, while highly intelligent, were not geniuses on the order of Sergey Brin or Albert Einstein. They were hardworking, dedicated, and clever. Though few inventors could hope to be as successful as Edison or Wright Brothers, many bright people lacking in genius could stumble upon an inspiration and hit the jackpot. And so, it was natural to believe that if more people had access to basic education, they too could be the Edisons or the Wrights of the future. It seemed doable if not easy.

But the whole ballgame changed with the rise of high-technology, and this was one of the reasons why the USSR could not keep up with the US. Though US built better machines than the USSR, USSR could always compensate by building more. So, if the American tank was better than the Soviet tank, Soviets could build 5 tanks for every American tank. If American jets were better than Soviet jets, Soviets could build 3 jets for every American jet. When the competition was about quantity over quality, the Soviets could stay in the game. Even if their weapons were shoddy, more could be made in what was essentially a war economy. Thus, a society that enforced middling equality for all and restricted the freedoms/successes of individual entrepreneurs could still remain a superpower. But once it turned into a high-stakes game of advanced science and technology, Soviets sensed that the game was up. Soviets mastered the atomic bomb, but it didn't much practical use and hardly added to national wealth. Soviets were also good at space technology, but its uses too were more symbolic than practical(at least through much of the 20th century). Also, if the Soviet state controlled all aspects of science and technology, individual scientists and innovators had far greaer freedom, leeway, and incentives in the West, especially the United States. While institutional command structures are necessary, many new ideas come from unforeseen places. And generally, individuals want to have control over their inventions and reap rewards by selling it whomever--other individuals or institutions--that want them.

There was a time when Reason seemed the best friend of equality. It mean universal education and the hope of people mastering the basics of knowledge--and using the knowledge to succeed in life.
And prior to the rise of high-tech, students, experimenters, and researchers could hope to master a scientific field or gain considerable technological know-how to make their fortune in life. This was the age of Edisons and Wrights who were not only admired as great inventors but celebrated as folk heroes. There was a 'one of us' aura about them. Their inventions were ingenious, but people could comprehend how the devices worked in a single day or even instantly. Though it was no easy task to perfect the light bulb, anyone could immediately grasp why and how it worked. And anyone could understand why the airplane worked the way it did. But what can one say about Einstein's theories? Most people won't understand the theory even after a year-long course on the subject.

When Einstein was alive, high-science hadn't yet translated into high-tech(except in government through massive funding like the Manhattan project; this was a time when wars were still mostly won through technological quantity than quality; Soviets and Americans just built more planes, tanks, and ships), and computer technology was still in its infancy. What was called high-tech in those days, while complex, could still be understood and even mastered by many educated people. It's like most people can learn to shoot  free throws in basketball.

Since high-tech lagged behind high-sci, geniuses like Einstein stuck mainly to theory than seek ways to use their geniuses to make lots of money. While the resources of the state could make the atomic bomb, most of the economy depended on technology that didn't require special genius. Any reasonably smart person could learn how to make a better radio, TV, refrigerator, record player, automobile, and etc. Science had become Einsteinian but the technology still played by the rules of Edisonism. Thus, techno-economic success was open to many more people than it is now. And it was during this period(which lasted up to the mid-80s, the time when the computer really started to take off) when Japan reached new heights with better cars and consumer good like the walkman, a device that, while cleverly put together, was no product of genius.  Japanese too learned how to shoot free throws.

But with the rise of personal computers, especially with the rise of the internet--and vast financial rewards associated with them--, advanced science and high-tech have finally become one and the same; and high-tech have become the staple of the new economy, which is why Apple and Google are among the biggest companies in the world. If Einstein were alive today, he wouldn't merely have to work in the world of theory. He could use his ideas to come up with gadgets and technology of almost science-fiction complexity and rake in billions of dollars.

The game is no longer about who can learn to shoot free-throws but who can hit the hole-in-one. We went from a basketball economy to a golf economy. Golf is a deceptive game. Despite the sloping fields, players more or less hit balls and stroll across a seemingly flat and uniformly green fields. And since there's no showy athletics, it seems like the most egalitarian game where anyone can play. But, hitting a hole in one is something most people cannot do. It's extremely difficult even for pros. So, golf has the look of equality but hides extreme hierarchy. The current socio-economic reality is like that. There is so much talk of equality, especially as the super-rich often dress like we do and talk about 'social justice'. But if most Americans long ago looked at men like Thomas Edison and thought, "I can do that!", how many can look at Zuckerberg and Brin and feel the same way? Perhaps the popularity of Steve Jobs was that he gave us that hope. He was not a computer genius--perhaps not a genius at all--, but he had the will, tenacity, and personality to take control and became one of the most successful people in the world. No one would mistake Gates or Brin as a folk hero, but there is a folk hero aura around Jobs.

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