The spontaneous, bottom-up protests of the so-called “Arab Spring” succeeded because they coalesced around an agenda for political change – to replace the brutal and corrupt regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (and now perhaps even in Syria) with new democratic institutions and new leaders who would deal with the deep poverty in those countries.
The growing anti-Wall Street protests in this country are similarly fueled by anger over our high unemployment, spreading poverty, and the extreme income gap between the rich and the rest of us. If the “American Spring” hopes to ignite a sustained movement for reform and revitalization, it will also need a platform for change – a vision for our future as a society. There is at least one candidate vision, and it’s called “The Fair Society.”
“Fairness” is a much-used buzzword in our politics these days, and cynics think it’s only a cloak, or a mask to hide our self-interests. But the cynics are wrong. One of the important findings of the emerging, multi-disciplinary science of human nature (it spans more than twenty different research domains) is that humans do, indeed, have an innate sense of fairness. We regularly display a concern for others’ interests as well as our own, and we even show a willingness to punish perceived acts of unfairness. Equally important, we are very good at judging when we are being treated unfairly.
The accumulating evidence for this distinctive human trait, which is reviewed in my book The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, also suggests that it played an important role in our evolution as a species. The ability to recognize and accommodate to the needs, interests and rights of others served to lubricate the close-knit, egalitarian social organization that was a key to our ancestors’ success over literally millions of years. But things have obviously changed. The rise of large-scale, complex, hierarchical societies in the past 10,000 years has often resulted in enclaves of great of wealth surrounded by widespread poverty, and this has often precipitated social turmoil and revolution. This is not news. Plato warned about it in his great dialogue, The Republic, over 2000 years ago.
In the twentieth century, after two horrendous world wars, a deep and prolonged economic depression, and two convulsive political revolutions (in Russia and China), Western societies generally moved toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and created an array of programs and institutions to fill in the wide gaps in our free market economies. These included pensions (Social Security), health insurance (Medicare), unemployment insurance, aid to unemployed families with dependent children, a minimum wage, low income housing, education assistance, and much more.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, America led the way. However, in the past 40 years we have reversed course and (worse) have been outsourcing many millions of well-paying jobs. We now have the highest income inequality among all but two of the 30 advanced OECD democracies (Mexico and Turkey), and we have undermined our social welfare safety net. We now have about 25 million unemployed (or under-employed) and close to 50 million Americans living in poverty (most of them working poor who must struggle to earn even the official “poverty line” income of about $22,500 for a family of four). In fact, the USDA estimated that some 50 million of us went hungry at various times during 2010. Compared to other so-called welfare capitalist societies (like Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany), our safety net is also in tatters. For instance, most of these countries provide much more generous unemployment benefits and make a much greater effort to retrain workers and assist them in finding new employment. (Steven Hill’s study called Europe’s Promise is an eye-opener.) Our next door neighbor, Canada, also puts us to shame.
It’s time to re-write our “social contract,” and it has to be based on a moral foundation of fairness. Fairness means, quite simply, taking into account the interests and needs of all parties, all the “stakeholders”, and trying to strike a balance between them. However, there is no cookbook recipe, or formula for fairness. Because we have so many conflicting interests, and different opinions about what is fair in a given situation, it’s a goal that can only be approximated with consistent effort and often in the face of strong opposition. And, whenever there are conflicting views, “compromise” is the indispensable solvent for achieving a fair outcome. The challenge before us is that fairness in relation to our economy and politics also has three distinct aspects, or principles, that are rooted in human nature (equality, equity, and reciprocity), and these must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a fair society.
First and foremost, the deep purpose of a human society is not, after all, about achieving growth, or wealth, or material affluence, or power, or social equality, or even about the pursuit of happiness. An organized society is quintessentially a “collective survival enterprise” -- a vast interdependent system of reciprocities and collective undertakings designed to meet our fourteen distinct categories of basic needs. These needs are imperatives for our biological survival and the ability to reproduce future generations, and they are shared more or less equally among us. (Our basic needs are discussed in detail in my book.) So the first element of a fair social contract consists of a mutual obligation to ensure that all of our basic needs are provided for, including especially those among us who are the victims of various circumstances beyond their control. I call it our “prime directive.” If we abandon this moral obligation, we betray our heritage and we put our society in grave peril.
Beyond providing for all of our basic needs, the science of human nature has identified two other important fairness principles that must also be included in a new social contract. One is the principle of “equity”, or rewards for merit (or punishments, as appropriate). Not only is recognition for merit a deeply ingrained human desire, but rewards for merit are the incentives that fuel our ambitions, our exertions and, ultimately, the contributions we make to our society.
The third fairness principle – a need for reciprocity -- is also a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature and a well-documented norm in every successful human society – indeed, of most human relationships. It means providing compensation for a service, paying back a favor, doing your fair share and, in a broader sense, respecting the interests and rights of others and adhering to the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”). And, of course, paying a fair share of the tax burden in return for the benefits you, your business, and your family and children receive from society. Otherwise, you are a “free rider” who is exploiting the efforts and contributions of others. This applies to the rich and the poor alike.
Accordingly, the new social contract that is outlined in The Fair Society has three distinct components: (1) a “basic needs guarantee” for all of our people; (2) beyond this, a reform of our capitalist system toward what has been called “stakeholder capitalism” – a model that ensures that the operative values in (especially) our banks and large business enterprises are fair to all of the stakeholders, not just the shareholders; and (3) reciprocity in the form of a much stronger commitment to ensuring a fair share of the tax burdens and a broad national service obligation for all of our citizens who are able to do so.
A range of specific reform proposals are described in The Fair Society, and there are many other practicable ideas that are waiting only for the political will to enact them. Some of the ideas I discuss include (most importantly) a national commitment to a full employment program, including efforts to re-train workers and subsidize private sector job creation, supplemented with programs like the successful Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration in the New Deal era. Beyond this, real help in restructuring mortgages for struggling homeowners would benefit the entire housing industry. Massive infrastructure spending could begin to work down the $2 trillion (plus) backlog of deferred maintenance (and put a lot of construction workers back on a payroll). This too would have long-term benefits for our economy. We also need to get realistic about the cost of living and raise the minimum wage gradually to a “living wage.” And, not least, we need top to bottom reform of a tax code that is corrupt and blatantly unfair. (This is not a full shopping list, but only a sampler.)
The Tea Party achieved its political clout with a focused and organized political movement and a clear legislative agenda. If the rest of us want to have a voice, we need to define the goals and agenda for “The Fair Society” and then mobilize the energies and resources needed to make it happen. This is the way that reforms have always happened in the past our society, and there is no reason why it can’t happen again.