This is the second in a series of essays by Tim Ferguson, founder of the Anacyclosis Institute, arguing in favour of Rationism, a middle class-oriented political theory that advocates benchmarking the national economy against the national median household net worth. Izabella Kaminska has also described Rationism as Vitruvian Capitalism, based on its promotion of the values of proportion and balance. The series emulates the Federalist Papers and is written under the pen name of Gracchus, a reformer of the Roman Republic.
Here is the introductory essay to the series.
Note: The purpose of this series is to enable readers to engage an interesting thought experiment through a series of essays defending a hypothetical constitutional amendment. The hypothetical constitutional amendment considered in these essays has not been officially proposed or introduced in any legislative assembly, and The Blind Spot does not engage in lobbying or legislative advocacy or present these essays for such purposes. It is all merely an exercise in the interest of stimulating debate.
That mankind is programmed for political revolution.
To the People of the United States:
Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior.
All who are vulnerable desire security. Most who are poor desire to rise to middling status. Many who are inferior would prefer equality. Some who achieve equality pursue superiority. Few in the middle class do not fantasize of acquiring great riches. None who attain superiority wish to diminish their station or be surpassed by another. The most basic acquaintance with human nature assures us that mankind’s chief preoccupation is to improve its status.
But an equally basic knowledge of human history, apprehending the infinite reservoir of avarice and ambition that fuels all notorious human endeavours, counsels that mankind’s occupations do not satisfy its preoccupations. Mankind is no closer to satisfying its aspirations for higher status today than it was upon the advent of civilization. And therein lay both the inexorable cause and the cyclical course of political revolution.
The relentless pursuit of wealth
Mankind’s chief preoccupation is to improve its status, but people measure status in one of two ways. The first kind of status is absolute. This assesses a person’s condition, their standard of living, without reference to any other person. For instance, does the wealth possessed by a person place him at the level of subsistence, convenience, or opulence?
The second kind of status is relative. This compares a person’s condition to that of another person in terms of social or economic parity, or rank. Relative status determines whether one man is inferior to another, equal to another, or superior to another.
Mankind’s pursuit of higher status – both relative and absolute – finds expression in various forms but finds fullest expression in the pursuit of wealth. Of all the metrics by which status can be measured, wealth is the most universal, most useful, easiest to display, easiest to compare, and most readily translated into power. For most, wealth reigns over all human virtues. It is easier to purchase bread with money than to demonstrate fortitude, to display a mansion rather than to show temperance, or to enforce territorial claims with nuclear weapons than to reveal humility. The quantity and quality of wealth are accordingly the prevailing standards by which mankind generally appraises the worth of men, enterprises, and nations. So, while mankind’s chief preoccupation is to improve its status, its primary occupation is to increase its wealth.
In the proliferation of material surplus, mankind has succeeded. America especially so. In celebrating our achievements, one generally contemplates some recent advance in science or technology, a new record in the gross domestic product, or capital appreciation. By that reckoning, America can congratulate itself for accumulating stupendous wealth, though certainly not for allocating it pro-rata to its creators.
By another standard, however, mankind has made hardly any progress at all. Aside from dismantling a handful of legal encumbrances for various marginalised groups, there are few recent achievements to praise in the field of American government. Notwithstanding the efforts of legislators, intellectuals, and activists and America’s uncontested prosperity and hegemony since the Second World War, democracy decays, wages stagnate, racial disparities persist, poverty continues, the middle class declines, polarization rises, and violence looms. Evidently, in the art of government, not much has improved since our Revolution; John Adams lamented that “While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a Stand; little better understood; little better practiced now than 3 or 4 thousand years ago”.
The unbalancable social equation
Behind the spectacle of economic and technological progress, mankind’s preoccupation with higher status conceals an insuperable dilemma: it necessarily and perpetually sets one part of humanity against another. In order for some men to be superior, equals must tolerate inferiority. To make all equal, superiors must tolerate equality. This conflict between equality and superiority contains no intrinsic resolution. Our ambition for higher relative status therefore creates an inherently unbalancable social equation.
The impulses for equality and superiority, both hardwired into mankind, operate in constant tension, rendering political struggle as natural, inevitable, perpetual, and cyclical as any other human process, thereby consigning most of human history to the chapters written on war and revolution. And as regards the struggle between the adherents of equality and those of superiority, it is the latter which are favoured by mankind’s relentless pursuit of wealth. For, while a condition of inferiority cannot be maintained without surpassing the greater number of mankind, equality cannot be attained without suppressing the greater ability of mankind. Of these two qualities, that of ability is more frequently attached to the most enterprising, intelligent, organised, disciplined, ambitious, cunning, and ruthless among us. Thus dedicated to the pursuit of wealth, the ablest and most ambitious – frequently inheriting an advantaged station – threaten to reduce every plan of moderation and reform conceived by egalitarian minds into the basest pacifying measure, as ever more wealth becomes concentrated in the most talented, privileged, and insatiable hands.
Progress in the realm of absolute status, improvements in technology and prosperity, do not resolve the perpetual struggle for relative status. It merely pushes it forward and scales it up. As was well-said by Dr. Brinton in his treatise on the revolutions of nations: “Men’s desires are the same, whether they ride toward their achievement in airplanes or on horseback”. Thucydides reflected a similar conclusion, writing: “The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same”.
The eternal conflict over relative status thus transcends every level of absolute status. Whether the scale of man’s struggle is over cities, nations, planets, or galaxies; whether the object of men’s struggle is over watering holes, or livestock, or land, or markets, whether it fights with swords, or rifles, or missiles, or sanctions; mankind shall be susceptible to this unbalanceable social equation as long as humans remain human, however wide its economic arena, however advanced its technological development.
The uniformity of human nature
In the past three or four thousand years mentioned by John Adams, not all nations have developed alike. Africa, Europe, and Asia boast the oldest civilisations. Yet across the continents we find varying success, at least measured by economic and political development. Some civilisations have accumulated vast wealth, others remained relatively impoverished. Some have advanced to democracy, others never exceeded monarchy. From the diversity of human history should we conclude that there exists a diversity of human nature, dictated by race or origin?
We shall not. All human societies at a similar stage of economic progress and practicing similar commercial techniques, despite superficial racial or other differences, can be expected to react fundamentally similarly to similar stimuli. As Machiavelli noted, all cities and peoples ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions. Where economic conditions are similar, social behaviour is similar. And the cumulative aggregation of similar social behaviour produces similar political phenomena. To hold otherwise is to espouse a genetic origin to diverse social outcomes. The varying trajectories of internal political evolution are not attributable to inherent racial differences, but principally to accidents of climate and agriculture (and foreign interference) that variously impair or propel the economic development of a given system, and in lesser degree to the strictures of local religion and culture to the extent affecting commerce.
Deposit ten thousand men and women native to each of Africa, Asia, Europe, America, and Australia onto four different uninhabited planets – all having comparable resources and environments, none contaminated by the peculiar idiosyncrasies of any unique cultural practices – and watch their political evolution take roughly the same course. Indeed, to deny the constancy and uniformity of human nature will lead us nowhere but into the dark territories of racism and prejudice.
All nations, being comprised of the same human raw material, are all encoded with the same behavioural programming, and are accordingly ordained to evolve pursuant to the same evolutionary political sequence. The uniformity of human nature thus renders the base sequence of political evolution as predictable as it is inevitable. The speed and extent to which a political system proceeds through this sequence is determined primarily by the relative distribution of wealth within that system and its security from its neighbours. As such, mankind’s preoccupation with higher status spring-loads every human society for a uniform sequence of political evolution: just add wealth.
The grinding struggle for subsistence by serfs and slaves, sometimes accompanied by intermittent but failed popular uprisings, comprises the bulk of human existence. Wealth and power are in most ages the exclusive province of kings and elites. Then comes the diffusion of wealth, which Dr. Scheidel tells us has only historically been enabled by plague, warfare, revolution, or state collapse. The ensuing rare but glorious ages of egalitarianism and democracy reflect the productive energies unleashed by societies anchored to the middle classes. These middle classes defend property rights and the freedom of contract, perfecting the conditions required for robust commerce. As these conditions at first enable, then encourage, the accumulation of ever greater household fortunes, the moderation attached to middling status is abandoned by the most successful economic actors who deploy their influence on their own enrichment. The consequent ruination of the middle classes by the inevitable concentration of their wealth unleashes a violent conflict between the few and many, which is finally resolved by the one. Once stabilised, power remains centralised in an authoritarian regime until the administration fails and the imperial system fragments into tribal chiefdoms, starting the great cycle anew.
That which many desire appreciates; that which many acquire depreciates
As a consequence of these conclusions, we must draw yet another, which is that people all too frequently do not value that to which they become accustomed. Thus, after the body politic acquires a given standard of living or any given article of property, it becomes accustomed to what it has acquired, and desires the next highest standard of living, or some new article of property. In other words, we often grow tired of or take for granted whatever becomes customary, no matter how cherished or ardently pursued in the first instance. Liberty, democracy, equality, comfort, safety, even intimate relationships; people take these things for granted once they grow accustomed to them for the reasons stated.
All this may appear to present interesting questions of little practical significance. The relevancy of these inquiries will nevertheless become immediately apparent when we evaluate the different approaches of political reform calculated to improve the condition of the poor, workers, and the middle class. We will then understand why political strife and faction will not cease just as soon as every household has two cars, a microwave, high-speed wireless internet, universal healthcare, and basic income. The dispensation of subsidies by political patrons does not end the struggle for equality and dignity. It makes it a struggle better-furnished and sometimes less violent, but no closer to resolution. And equipped with this knowledge, we will be able to distinguish between measures that could permanently ameliorate the public distress, as opposed to those that would only temporarily pacify the public desire.
In the next essay, however, we will take a closer look at the great cycle briefly described above, of which our most cherished political precept – democracy – has as a historical matter been only a brief phase.