I've just re-read Gordon Dickson's 'Necromancer', a novella providing some context for the author's Childe Cycle series of novels. In the book a future world is described where man's material needs are met, where technology has solved the problems of weather, food production and much else besides. Dickson doesn't go into details - the novella's purpose is to make a point not to create a future world - but his world isn't utopia.
At one point the hero read the newspapers and sees that, despite the meeting of needs, mankind is unhappy, thrashing about looking for purpose in a world of material satisfaction:
"The publications were full of the statistics of distress. Testing of grade-school children revealed that seven per cent of those under the age of eight were headed for major mental illnesses. The world crime rate had been climbing steadily for fifty years and this last year had jumped twenty-three per cent again. And this in a world in which nobody needed to lack for the necessities, and even most of the luxuries, of life. The world suicide rate was climbing sharply. Cultism was commonplace. Hysteria such as the marching societies exemplified was growing steadily. The birth rate was down."
Dickson wrote his novella in 1962 and described a world that, for us today, is surprisingly familiar. Even down to the ennui that pervades society, the sense of dissatisfaction and sometimes anger at some percieved injustice. And at the heart of all this is the sense that, in some manner, inequality is unfair. For some this has been turned into a pseudo-science, the picking away at statisitcs to prove that the ennui of modern society is a consequence of inequality - the mental ill-health, the suicide, the overindulgence would all fade were we but equal. Yet, despite our wish for equality, we know this cannot be so.
However, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't give people the chance to be equal. More importantly there is a real need for society to seek lower levels of inequality - not because of some perception of fairness but because high levels of inequality cause society to break down. And once people break from the bounds of law and democracy they are wont to find violent, oppressive resolutions to their envy.
I don't really want to comment on the economics of Thomas Piketty here but rather to say something about the sociological implications of his argument. If Piketty is right and the accumulation of wealth exceeds the rate of economic growth with the consequence that society's stock of wealth becomes concentrated in a small elite, then at some point society ceases to function. We either become an oikos state as Finer defined ancient civilisations - where the entire endeavour of society is to meet the needs of the god-king - or else order breaks down entirely with its associated economic collapse.
In the former case we would need a reason for people to remain in de facto slavery. Bread and circuses won't do over the long term, we would need the 21st century equivalent of that god-king ensuring the Nile floods every year. We must believe we would all die if that wealthy elite failed. I do not feel that such circumstances exist, which makes social breakdown inevitable - envy will triumph before Piketty's wealth gatherers achieve dominance.
We can call the envy of others' wealth different things - injustice maybe, inequality certainly, unfair often - but this doesn't detract from the central fear that the envy will lead to violent revolution. At the end of Necromancer, Dickson leaves us with a collapsing society - he has made his point that courage, faith and creativity are essential traits in man and that technology crushes these traits preferring a drab homogeneity.
But I just see that collapse. And wonder if the obsession of some with inequality reflects a fear that human envy - I want what he has - will create such a collapse?