Public presentation, House of Literature, Oslo, Norway, May 2015
To me, a fair society is a sacred temple, a hallowed place where social justice is the rule rather than the exception, where people try to live according to the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”), and where a high level of cooperation and social trust are the measures of its success.
Such ethical shrines are rare and fragile. But they do exist. As you may suspect, I have a particular society in mind.
But to call Norway a fair society begs several questions. What is a fair society? How do you know it when you see it? Or don’t see it? What does it mean for the lives and the well being of its citizens? And is it sustainable?
My 2011 book called The Fair Society was concerned primarily with my own country – once a leader in the pursuit of social justice but now very far off track and seriously at risk. The American experience provides a morality tale – an object lesson on a grand scale about the problem of sustaining social justice. I will talk more about this later on.
However, my book also speaks to the broader questions about fairness. What is a fair society, and what are its consequences?
Let me start by saying that, from my perspective, both capitalism and socialism are fundamentally unfair. They are both derived from simplistic, one-sided views of human nature, and they are flawed in their understanding of the basic purpose of a human society. It is high time for us to consign these antiquated ideologies to the “dust bin of history” — to borrow a Bolshevik term. (I devote an entire chapter to this controversial subject in my book.)
What I call “The Fair Society Model” involves a third way. In a very real sense it represents a compromise between capitalism and socialism. It also has an evolutionary/biological basis, and it derives its social values, and ethical principles, from the emerging, multidisciplinary science of human nature (which I also review in my book.)
So let me briefly describe the Fair Society Model and what I refer to as a “biosocial contract.”
A good place to start is with the eighteenth century English philosopher Edmund Burke. You may already be familiar with his famous definition of the social contract. Here is an excerpt from Burke’s frequently quoted passage [SLIDE #1]:
Society is indeed a contract…[But] the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership in trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern…As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained by many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are [yet] to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.
Burke comes very close to a modern, evolutionary perspective. The basic, continuing, inescapable problem for all living creatures is biological survival and reproduction over time. Charles Darwin called it “the struggle for existence” but I prefer to call it the “challenge of existence.”
Life is quintessentially a survival enterprise, and any organized, interdependent society, whether it be in humankind or leaf cutter ants, represents (in essence) a shared, “collective survival enterprise.” [SLIDE #2]
Accordingly, the fundamental purpose of a human society is to provide for the basic survival and reproductive needs of its members. Whatever may be our aspirations, or our illusions, our basic vocation as a species and the overwhelming majority of our daily activities are either directly or indirectly related to satisfying our basic needs. (In modern societies, this includes – not least – earning an income.)
Although this view of the human condition may seem to discount our cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual values, or what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization,” (or, for that matter, our desire for freedom) — it does not at all. Rather, it puts these important social values into a larger perspective on life and clarifies what our priorities must be.
In fact, the challenge of existence is much broader than many people realize. At my Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, we have developed and documented a biologically-grounded basic needs framework that is more extensive than most others of this kind. It includes no less than fourteen broad categories of concrete needs that are essential in order for a person, or a society, to survive, and thrive.
The fourteen basic needs categories are listed in this diagram [SLIDE #3]. I will not take the time to go through them in detail here. But you can see that they go beyond such obvious things as food, fresh water and physical safety. They also include such things as mental health, positive social relationships, vital information, and (most important) the reproduction, nurturance and education of the next generation. (There is also a chapter devoted to this framework in my book, and there is a brand new, privately sponsored Social Progress Index that encompasses most of these needs.)
These fourteen basic needs are more or less equally shared by all of us (with some obvious variations). But more important, they are not optional. Significant harm will result if any of them is not satisfied. Therefore, they represent the foundation for what could be called a “biosocial contract.” Our prime directive (to borrow a term from the TV series Star Trek) is a collective obligation to provide for the basic needs of all of our fellow citizens. (I should note that I also draw a clear distinction between primary biological needs and instrumental needs – the varying tools, technologies and practices that are used to satisfy our needs.)
However, the science of human nature also teaches us that this is not sufficient. Beyond providing for our basic needs, a Fair Society must also recognize and reward merit (or equity). We must acknowledge the many differences among ourselves in terms of talent, hard work and achievements. The principle of equity means “giving every man due” as Plato put it in his classic dialogue on social justice — the Republic. Plato’s most illustrious student, Aristotle, called it “proportionate equality.”
Finally, there must also be reciprocity — an unequivocal commitment on the part of every citizen (who is able to do so) to help support the collective survival enterprise, because no society can long exist only on a diet of altruism. Altruism is the emotional and psychological basis of the “safety-net” that we provide for one another. Reciprocity (or tit-for-tat as the saying goes) is necessary in order to close the circle, or balance the scale in terms of the benefits and costs for each of us. Reciprocity is also a universal cultural practice with deep roots in human nature.
Accordingly, a biosocial contract includes three distinct social policy principles that must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a truly Fair Society. I like to use the metaphor of a three-legged stool, where all three legs are required for it to perform its function. (This is a far different model from the philosopher John Rawls’ “difference principle” – needless to say.)
These fairness principles are [SLIDE #4]:
(1) EQUALITY: Goods and services must be distributed to everyone according to their basic needs (our highest priority in accordance with our prime directive);
(2) EQUITY: Surpluses beyond the provisioning of our basic needs must be distributed according to “merit”;
(3) RECIPROCITY: In return, each of us is obligated to contribute to the “collective survival enterprise” proportionately in accordance with our ability.
So how does Norway measure up to these principles? You probably can answer this question much better than I can. But the statistics I have seen are impressive – high life expectancy, low infant mortality, strong support for child care and education, very low unemployment, a low poverty rate, a relatively flat income distribution, and a strong safety net for what I refer to as the “no fault needs” that occur in every society.
At the same time, Norway does recognize and reward achievement and success (although improvements could always be made), and it expects much from its citizens in return for the benefits of living in a Fair Society. Norway seems to have found the “sweet spot” – a term that comes from American baseball. Norway, and the Nordic model, does indeed seem to fit the criteria for a Fair Society – although no society is perfect, of course.
But Norway is also defying the long-term odds. Norway and its Scandinavian cousins are historic exceptions rather than the rule, as I discuss in my book and as the economist Thomas Piketty has documented extensively in his book, Capital in the Twenty First Century. In fact, very few societies have ever been able to achieve, much less to sustain a truly fair social contract.
This may seem to be paradoxical, because it is at odds with the strong and growing evidence that a sense of fairness and empathy for our fellows is a biologically based psychological trait with deep roots in our evolutionary heritage as a species. (This research is also reviewed in my book.)
One problem is that our social instincts evolved in small, close-knit tribal societies. Large, complex modern societies create many different interests, and interest groups, which may come into conflict. Competition may overshadow cooperation, and there may be strong disagreements about what is fair in any given situation. Our cultural and legal practices can be helpful in resolving our differences, but there are no simple, all-purpose formulas or recipes – except, of course, for the all-important principle of compromise.
We are also very prone to draw sharp distinctions between “we” and “they”. We may be willing to sacrifice our lives for members of our own group, or “tribe”, or nation, but we can be indifferent or even hostile to the idea of fairness toward those who are viewed as outsiders, who are not one of “us.” Xenophobia (a psychological phenomenon also well documented by the science of human nature) has a long and bloody history in our species. Indeed, there is much evidence that warfare played a major role in human evolution, just as Darwin supposed. And, as you all know, civil violence is endemic modern societies.
But another serious obstacle to achieving a fair society arises from the fact that perhaps 20-30 percent of the people in any given society are more or less indifferent, or even antagonistic, toward fairness and fair play. (This is another clear cut finding of the emergent science of human nature – as discussed in my book — and it also accords with the fact that variation is the rule in the living world. Humankind is no exception.)
So the ruthless pursuit of self-interest is also a major theme in human societies. And if the many self-serving egoists among us conspire to control the levers of wealth and political power, and if they use their power in various ways to exploit the rest of us — and if they also rationalize their actions with an ideology that justifies their greed (whether it’s a divine right or the workings of the “invisible hand” in capitalist free markets), then the result will look very much like what you see in America today.
As I said at the beginning of my talk, America provides a morality tale about how fragile a fair society is and how easily it can be subverted and lost. [SLIDE #5]
This table contains some statistics that compare the United States in the 1950s and in the early 2000s. The differences speak for themselves, I think:
Comparing The United States in 1950 and 2010
Distribution of Wealth (Top 1%) 27.1% 35.4%
(Top 10%) — 77.1%
Income (Top 1%) 10.1% 21%
(Top 10%) 32% 49.3%
Average CEO Salaries 20 X 260 X
(compared to workers)
Top Tax Rate 91% 39.6%
Union Membership 33% <10%
(percent of workforce)
Percent Living in Poverty — 15-25% *
Number Without Health Insurance — 48 million +
Number with “Food Deprivation” — 50 million +
Trust in Government 75-80% 20-25%
* 1950 estimates are not reliable. Current estimate varies, depending on criteria used and inclusion of non-cash subsidies like food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, etc.
+ There are no reliable statistics for the earlier date. There have been some improvements in these figures since 2010.
Sources include: Center for Budget Priorities; Emmanuel Saez; Edward Wolff; William Domhoff.
How did this happen? How did the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and the Fair Deal of President Harry Truman in the latter 1940s degenerate into a deeply conservative “shareholder capitalism” (and a related theory of “trickle down” economic benefits to the workers that has proven to be a myth), along with a series of tax reductions and tax subsidies for the rich, an aggressive assault on labor unions and union rights, cutbacks in our social welfare programs, and major financial deregulation that put the country (and the global economy) at risk?
The answer to the question of how this happened involves many factors. It is a complicated story, of course. Among other things, it reflects America’s history and culture as an individualistic, “free enterprise” society. There is also the long and bitter (and sometimes violent) conflict between management and labor; also, a deeply divisive war (in Vietnam) in the 1960s that permanently alienated many American citizens from their government; a dark and abiding (and sometimes violent) racial division in the country that resulted in a political realignment (and deadlock) in our two-party system; also, some serious structural defects in our political institutions; also, the rise of strong foreign competition against America’s once preeminent manufacturing sector; the spread of factory automation and other labor-saving technologies that weakened labor unions; and more.
But, in the end, it involved a matter of democratic choice. It was the successful result of an organized conservative political movement (with the help of conservative political leaders like President Ronald Reagan) that justified its actions with a self-serving, anti-government, free market ideology. President Reagan liked to say that “government is not the solution; government is the problem.” Sociologist Gosta Esping Andersen, in his book-length comparative analysis, points out that politics has played a decisive role in determining the course of each of the modern welfare capitalist nations. (I might add that cultural norms and values may be as much a result as a cause of a Fair Society. Just look at the changing level of trust in government in the U.S. over time.)
Politics, as we say in America, is the “bottom line” (a term borrowed from accounting). The American example shows that a Fair Society like Norway is forever at risk because conditions are always changing over time, and the political consensus that allowed Norway to create a Fair Society may change. The Golden Age in ancient Athens ended with the disastrous Peloponnesian War. A golden age in the United States (though not for many blacks) ended with convulsive political changes at home and competition from a rising global economy.
Plato, in the Republic, famously warned that every state is in fact divided into two states, one composed of the rich and the other of the poor, and that these two states are forever at war with each other. Norway and a few other societies have managed to avoid Plato’s dark verdict – so far. (It is worth noting that American progressives are now belatedly promoting a sweeping reform program called “inclusive capitalism.” To modify the old saying, they are preaching what Norway practices.)
Since World War Two, Norway has enjoyed a very favorable set of circumstances, including a relative abundance of resources, a relatively small and harmonious population and a global political order that has provided stability and an absence of external enemies, in contrast with a past history in which Norway’s destiny was often controlled by other countries.
However, the historic odds are against a long life span for Norway’s model of a Fair Society. You know much better than I do, of course, what the challenges are – declining oil reserves, global economic competition, climate change, terrorist acts, and more. As I document in my book, a society under severe social stress can dissolve into warring factions. As the saying goes, when the pie gets smaller, the table manners change.
What I do know, based on what I have witnessed in my own country, is that a dedication to preserving a Fair Society must be backed by hard work and a collective political will (and the necessary leadership) to make it happen, whatever may be the challenges. And there must also be a willingness to make adjustments (and compromises) as necessary when conditions change. The guiding principle must be shared sacrifices, but the basic needs of the people must always come first.
The idea of a “common good” is more than a mere platitude, or a nice sentiment. The common good is a Fair Society – a society that embodies the three principles of social justice that I have described here and discuss at length in my book – equality, equity, and reciprocity. It is a lived experience. But it is also a never ending challenge. The Fair Society principles must be actively and faithfully defended against the ever-present threat of unrestrained, exploitative competition.
I can only hope that Norway will be able to beat the odds and continue to meet this challenge successfully in the years ahead. If so, it will remain an inspiration to us all.