The Origins of Inequality

The Origins of Inequality

Reviewed by Winnett Hagens

Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 32-33

Claude S. Fischer, Michael Hout, Martin Sanchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swindler, and Kim Voss, Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996

In truth this is a book far more about the origins of inequality than a rebuttal for the tired neo-Darwinist arguments advanced by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve (1994). The authors of Inequality by Design return the continuing debate on inequality and its correlate–racism– back to basics in a way that nearly everyone can appreciate.

What re the basics of inequality and racism? Human appetite is insatiable. No society has sufficient resources to satisfy the desires of all its members. Inevitably, some get more than others. In its most basic essence, racism is a nearly universal mechanism for deciding who gets what in a world where the most desirable goods are scarce. Ruling groups enjoying affluence or even opulence invariably fabricate and perpetuate myths disparaging and debasing the ethnic or racial groups they subjugate and exploit. Such racial myths play a crucial role in perpetuating inequalities by rationalizing and justifying oppressive mistreatment of enslaved or indentured populations upon whose labor the social hierarchy ultimately rests.

According to the authors (Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley) of Inequality by Design, Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve is merely a contemporary version of a philosophy that is centuries old: “[ordained by our creator] inequality is fated; and people deserve, by virtue of their native talents, the positions they have in society…individuals’ intelligence largely decides their life outcomes.” From this perspective, poverty and wealth are the artifacts of a kind of cosmic game of chance that we call genetics. The fault, if there is any, is in nature. If you lose in the cosmic throw of the dice, blame nature.

Readers interested in a classic exposé of a failure in social science research will find Inequality by Design good reading. Is there really such a thing as “intelligence?” Is intelligence one, a few, or many things? If you want to get into the details of psychometrics, if you want a powerful summary of arguments questioning current understandings (or, are they myths?) of intelligence, this well written book will hold your attention. You will learn, for instance, that subordinate racial and ethnic groups around the world, today and in earlier decades, invariably do worse in schools an don school tests than do dominant groups regardless of the genetic differences or similarities between them. The deprivations of oppression and exploitation–the hunger, disease, ignorance, pervasive alienation, and self-hatred–

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that typically accompany inferior status often guarantee collective failure in schools. The history of blacks and Latinos in the United States fits the pattern. As the authors put it: “it is not that low intelligence leads to inferior status; it is inferior status that leads to low intelligence test scores. …A racial or ethnic group’s position in society determines its measured intelligence rather than vice versa.”

Yet, the real power of this book is not its devastating rebuttal of the phony “prosperity of the fittest: argument, but it is more central and compelling counter-theme that inequality is a property of now societies are structured, not of how individuals talent is distributed. And when it comes to inequality the United States has the greatest degree of economic inequality of any developed country. This inequality between classes in America has, moreover, been growing for the last quarter century. In the United States, 120:1 is the ratio of the average CEO’s pay to the average industrial worker’s pay. In Britain the ratio is 25:1, nearly five times less. In Germany it is 21:1 and in Japan 16:1.

The kinds of extreme inequalities we see reappearing in America today, according to the authors, are neither natural nor inevitable. We help fewer of our citizens than do other industrialized countries and when we do help we do so less generously. For example, we provide medical insurance for some residents; most nations provide medical insurance care for all. According to the authors, in America we spend less on children than any developed country in the world. We give families with children tax breaks, most nations give family allowances. While it’s free enterprise for the poor in America, tax breaks, subsidies, and cozy regulatory relationships all spell socialism for the rich, especially the super rich, in America. There should be little wonder that the gap between rich and poor, or even the rich and middle class Americans continues to widen.

Many Americans, perhaps a majority, believe that inequality is needed to motivate people to work hard and propel economic growth. But, if this premise of American inequality is true, how much inequality is needed? Some of the research the authors of Inequality by Design present suggests that extreme inequalities in income may actually impede economic growth rather than stimulate it. One research study touched on in the book showed that key redistributive policies (homeowners subsidies, health plans, child care, etc.) do not inhibit the functioning of economies instituting such measures. Another study mentioned in the book even showed that product quality improved as the wage gap narrowed between managers and workers.

This kind of research is ground zero for a coming debate that, unless our current prosperity is perpetual, will occur when good times turn bad. Now, as the authors of Inequality by Designinsist, is the time for Americans to accept responsibility for the inequality our choices have created instead of blaming nature. This book is an excellent place to enter a critical dialogue that will, one day, reshape our nation.

Winnett Hagens is director of Fair Representation Programs at the Southern Regional Council