Inequality is one of the grave social ills of our time, but it is nothing new—
it is an age-old problem. Records of inequality have been found from as far back as 4000 years on a Sumerian stele unearthed by archaeologists. This stone cuneiform inscription displays a Sumerian hymn from Nippur which praises the goddess Nanshe:
Who knows the orphan, who knows the widow,
knows the oppression of man over man, is the orphan’s mother,
Nanshe, who cares for the widow,
who seeks out justice for the poorest.
The queen brings the refugee to her lap,
finds shelter for the weak.
Swedish analyst Per Molander believes, “The omnipresence of inequality warrants an explanation” so he sets forth this historical review of the causes and effects of inequality. In his analysis he raises some questions other authorities frequently avoid such as, “Why do the wealthiest countries, like the U.S., have the greatest incidences of inequality?” “Why are all societies unequal?” and “Can inequality be politically influenced?”
The author mines anthropology, political science, economics and other disciplines looking for answers. He examines three major political and ideological systems which have created more just societies and then offers updates on these policies that could be enacted today to help close the social/economic/justice inequality chasm.
One approach is to use the status quo as a starting point and discuss how best to tweak it. Machiavelli and Hume are devotees of this philosophical methodology. Another scheme is to begin with a sketch of a society neither arguing for nor against alternatives. “The Laws of Manu,” which describe the Indian caste system, and Plato’s “Republic” are examples from this tradition. Recent examples of this tradition can be found in Thomas More’s “Utopia” and Robert Owen’s “A New View of Society.” This philosophy pays close attention to details and even ventures into urban planning.
Molander focuses most of the book on the third political philosophy, contract theory, whose foundation is based on the immutable rights and freedoms of every citizen. This philosophy, sometimes called classical or social liberalism, has as its proponents ancient Greek philosophers like the Epicureans and Stoics and more recent philosophers, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.
Social liberalism aims to define the rights and freedoms of the individual which then become the legal foundation for political power and the framing of an ideal constitution. Creating a society is presented as a social contract in which a group of people gives up some of their individual freedoms in order to share in the benefits of the community. The social contract creates an egalitarian benchmark for a society. Everyone begins at the same starting point regardless of the end result.
This well researched and documented book is a somewhat ponderous read, but it provides new insights for me. Molander presents a persuasive case that humankind is much greater than the inequalities it has established. Readers interested in working toward a more egalitarian society will find some of the author’s deductions dispiriting and eye-opening as he documents the ubiquity of inequality and the complexity of finding a workable, but not impossible remedy.