Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Social Limits to Equity

Almost 10 years ago I read a book by Fred Hirsch entitled The Social Limits to Growth. My reading of the book is that it is essentially a critique of socialism which, according to some interpretations, strives for equality of all.

Rather than approaching the problem as that of the impossibility of designing a system that will generate economic equality, Hirsch asserts that the true limits to socialism are found in what he calls the social limits which I take to mean is the impossibility of social equality.

Humans have a natural need to distinguish themselves from other humans not merely in the sense of difference but in the sense of hierarchies. In Hirsch's architectonic, humans struggle to distinguish themselves vertically from others, to set themselves apart on another, higher level relative to others.

Therefore, the whole notion of economic equality is bound to fail because people will resist attempts at generating homogeniety by placing everyone on a single level. Such homogeniety can only be enforced through force (and even then, the fact that there are those who control that force and there are those on whom that force is applied already denotes inequality).

Softer approaches call for growth with equity and the most popular form of this is the basic needs approach. The call here is not for equality but for all to have access to certain basic needs. Hirsch's argument here is that this is all fine and dandy but the consequence of ensuring basic needs for all is the need for those who always had their basic needs to feel the need to re-establish some measure of distinction from those who are newly non-poor. An analogy here is that when minimum wages are raised, everybody's wages have to increase because heirarchies have to be maintained. So the consequence of ensuring basic needs or raising minimum wages is that while poverty defined by some “objective” standard is addressed, it will never ever be able to erase the whole notion of some being (relatively) poorer than others.

Next Post: Friday, September 28.


Omi said...

But should the hierarchy be based on material/economic status? What if there is still social hierarchy but it is based on more intangible qualities such as intelligence. But, the tricky part is how it should not translate to material benefits (i.e. intelligent people are paid higher wagers in their specialized fields).

Does Hirsch operate on the assumption of a modern man, or is it out of the question?

Leland said...

Thanks for the comment. Made me re-read the essay and realize that I did sound economistic. But the point of Hirsch precisely is that people will strive to distinguish themselves in various ways.

I'm not sure if Hirsch assumes modernity. That's a question I've been asking myself: whether the quest for distinction and adcancement are modern phenomena. I have a feeling it is not but that in the modern era, it is more accepted.