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"Exploitive Inequality" by John Dever

Co-Winner, Teacher/Postgraduate Category, Student/Teacher Essay Contest, "Ethics for a Connected World," 2012

February 21, 2013

CREDIT: Chris Wieland, (CC)

John Dever teaches social studies at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Maine. In addition to working in a traditional public high school, his career has included experiences teaching at an alternative high school and in a juvenile detention facility and working as a historical interpreter at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation.

Essay Topic: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?

Exploitive Inequality

In Kurt Vonnegut's dystopian short story Harrison Bergeron, the government deliberately handicaps citizens who are above average so that all will be equally dull. Two dancers, for example, are weighed down by chains so that viewers will not watch their athletic feats and feel inferior to them. The result is, of course, that the government drags all members of society to the lowest level so that none is smarter, braver, more athletic, or more musically talented than anyone else. Most readers interpret this story as a damning indictment of the enforced "equality" of socialism and a celebration of individualism and wholesome competition as a societal. Vonnegut takes our love for equality and stands it on its head, forcing us to see the virtue of inequality.

Ironically, Harrison Bergeron illustrates that inequality can lead to some of civilization’s most soaring achievements. Without competition and the incentive of disproportionate rewards for some, not to mention the concentration of wealth in the hands of innovators, entrepreneurs, and even government technocrats, mankind might not have reached the moon, built the internet, or developed the drugs that keep deadly diseases at bay. Some call this type of inequality "productive inequality." But the dark side of inequality continues to haunt us, despite the message of Harrison Bergeron. Particularly troubling is the vastly unequal distribution of wealth and privilege in the early 21st century, which might be termed "exploitive inequality." One of the key differences between these two types of inequality is that in the former, individuals have some measure of equality of opportunity, and thus hope to improve their lot. At the very least, many people can share in advancements made by others, taking joy in the beauty of a virtuoso ballet performance or enjoying the material wealth and comfort that investment in infrastructure and business can produce. In the second form, individuals are locked into inferior positions by institutions such as political systems, economic systems, geography, or technological handicaps. Rather than the skilled dancers being forced to wear chains, as in Harrison Bergeron, we see situations where those who are already weak are forced to wear chains that compound their misery while they watch "dancers" who are given performance enhancers win accolades and then blithely explain how "anyone could do this with a little hard work." Not only is this attitude a moral outrage, but in the "information age," it contributes to a growing sense that the world is a fundamentally unjust place that needs to be remade, even, some think, through the application of violence.

Exploitive inequality is one of the fundamental ethical challenges that faces us today, and it vastly complicates any response to threats to peace, justice, and human dignity. In an era of instant communication, virtually all people of the world are increasingly aware of the widening gap between the rich countries and the poor ones. Even in wealthy areas such as the United States and Europe, there is a troubling gap between wealthy individuals and those of more modest means. Meanwhile, growing environmental, military, and economic crises threaten to overwhelm the very progress that productive inequality has built in the years since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The wealthy individuals and countries of the world appear unconcerned about the people who lie directly in the path of these imminent disasters. This combination of exploitive inequality and calamitous natural or man-made events has been seen before, and the result is almost always a period of widespread conflict and human suffering on a vast scale. The cataclysmic revolutions that ended the Ancien Régime in France and the Romanov Dynasty in Russia stand as stark warnings to societies that ignore the dangers of institutionalized exploitive inequality. The "Occupy" movement in the United States, civil unrest in Spain and Greece, and the "Arab Spring" movement are mere shadows of the coming violence that will emerge should the privileged countries and individuals of the world continue to ignore exploitive inequality in the face of global climate change, dissatisfaction with ruling elites, and declining resources.

Historians debate whether leaders of the time could have headed off the collapse of royal absolutism and feudal privilege in 18th century France or the horrific carnage of World War One and the destructive effect it had on the Russian Empire. Similarly, world leaders today may or may not be able to temporarily deflect the political and economic problems that confront us. But it is unlikely that any leaders can completely eliminate warfare, terrorism, or tyranny. Likewise, few scientists think that the world can react to climate change or emergent pandemics quickly enough to avoid the harsh consequences headed our way. The real issue is not whether we try and prevent disaster; it so often comes in unexpected times and places that one cannot ever fully plan for disaster. Rather, the moral and ethical dilemma is how the world will deal with the suffering inevitably caused by calamity. Will the world respond to disasters in a fair and equitable way, spreading the cost of disaster among the wealthy rather than leaving the world's most vulnerable to try to survive and rebuild with the meager resources they possess? The wealthy countries and individuals of the world must recognize that they have a moral imperative to assist those who are poorer and weaker than they.

Ensuring a fair and just response to catastrophe, however, is only one face of the ethical dilemma of exploitive inequality. There is also a need to set the stage for fair and productive competition between individuals, businesses, and national economies. The goal is not to guarantee an equality of outcomes, but rather to prevent the affluent from using their power to put in place a hardened class system that prevents newcomers from challenging their privileged position. In a complex world of international trade, the effect of exploitive inequality manifests at the most local levels. In India, farmers who can no longer compete in global markets dominated by agricultural giants commit suicide at alarming rates. In Maine, small dairy farmers cannot stay in business despite rising milk prices in grocery stores. On the seas across the globe, fisherman from different countries jockey for the right to set traps and nets in disputed waters, hoping that their own government will be able to defend their claim against the claims of fishermen from more powerful states. In poor countries around the world, women walk miles every day to gather fuel for their cooking fires, while westerners merely flip on a switch to charge electronic games and turn on energy-hungry large screen televisions while lights burn throughout the night in the streets of their bustling cities. How can the citizens of the wealthy and powerful states claim that their success is due solely to talent and hard work when so many talented and intelligent individuals are denied even the slightest opportunity to innovate, build, and discover due to the happenstance of their birth?

Solutions to the problems inherent in exploitive inequality will not come easy. There must be an array of strategies employed to tackle this difficult quandary. We must make a close examination of working conditions in all countries, ensure equal value is given to dignity of workers across the globe, properly reward citizens of areas where companies extract natural wealth such as oil, increase our awareness of the problem of conspicuous and wasteful consumption, encourage growth in the manufacture and certification of fair trade items, and craft farm bills that do not disadvantage small farmers. State socialism has proven that it has no place in a world that values individual dignity and individual rights. Now it is time to accept that unbridled and unregulated capitalism has no place in a world that values equality of opportunity and the worth of small business. It is time to acknowledge that states and international organizations must act as a check on the appetites of the wealthy when those appetites actively inflict harm on the poor.

It is neither fair nor reasonable to expect the wealthy countries and individuals of the world to redistribute all their wealth to create the grey, dull, and ultimately immoral landscape into which the fictional Harrison Bergeron is born. It is, however, fair and reasonable to expect the wealthy to ensure that those who have benefited so much from productive inequality use the bounty that is theirs to help in caring for the real people who face catastrophe. It is also imperative that the wealthy are restrained from using their positions of power and privilege to prevent free and fair competition from those who have had the bad luck to be born into less fortunate circumstance. The wealthy should not be shackled. Neither should they be allowed to shackle others.

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