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The resulting societies are far from politically harmonious, with the uneven distribution of wealth being much resented and criticised; but the historical evidence again shows that these societies succeed exceptionally well when faced with natural disasters or when in conflict with societies organised on other lines. Civil life in such societies may resemble one interminable domestic quarrel, but they are shock-resistant to a remarkable degree. The United States brushes off on a regular basis natural disasters of a scale that would flatten other economies for a generation, and has successfully defended itself and its allies against courageous and dedicated enemies on at least three occasions in the last century. One of those opponents, Japan, now amongst the world’s most prosperous liberal societies, suffers periodic and tremendous earthquakes, but is superbly prepared and promptly addresses these disasters and recovers the damage with hardly a bead of economic sweat.

But if unequal societies are so successful in delivering this common good, why is there any resentment of the inequalities? The answer lies deep in the development of our species. The human organism, body and mind, has evolved predominantly through the individual’s reproductive competition with its conspecifics. Slight differences in individual reproductive success, even if only partly determined by genetic variations, will have remarkable consequences in only a few dozen generations, and in fact there have been approximately 200,000 generations since the human line diverged from that of the australopithecines about 3.5 million years ago. As a result of this evolutionary history, every one of us is acutely sensitive to even small differences of individual personal wealth. Statistically speaking, what our ancestors did, and what we continue to do, is to gather resources to secure reproduction. Of course, humans do not crudely maximise that reproduction. Given available resources they balance the number of offspring against the investment needed to prepare them for life in the natural circumstances and social systems in which those offspring will themselves reproduce. Thus, even in the presence of high levels of absolute personal riches, differential levels of resources lead to different numbers of offspring and varying levels of investment in those offspring, and so in the security of reproduction at that social level.

These differences stimulate resentment, and indeed spite, which is the attempt to suppress the wealth and success of others so that it does not exceed our own. This is in many circumstances an adaptive reaction for individuals in an evolved social species where each organism’s security of reproduction is defined in relative terms. It is good to be rich, but this counts for little if others are richer. An individual is alive today because their ancestors were concerned about the relative wealth of those around them, and did their best to exceed or to restrain the success of others.

This recognition adds great vistas of time and additional foci to the standard economic understanding of individual self-interest, and it explains the power and resonance of Edmund Burke’s framing of the social contact as trans-generational. That is to say, the interests of the individual are only in part vested in the present and in the life of its own body, but also extend into the far distant future in the persons of their actual or probable offspring, and in their collateral family, and in the descendants of all of these. It is principally though not exclusively to these latter interests that the benefits of a resilient society are returned, and it is on this ground that liberal, competitive societies delivering great aggregate wealth can be convincingly justified.
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Lawrence James
July 7th, 2018
5:07 PM
'Laws that restrain an individual's adventures' . . . eg the outlawing of the slave trade, the banning of the adulteration of food and legislation which insists upon safety in mines and factories. Victorian laws framed in the knowledge that adventurous capitalists could never be trusted.

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