Reflections on the Idea of Equality

V. Inequalities and Injustices

Injustices Promote Inequalities

As we have noted in previous essays in this series, there are many types of inequality which societies and individuals cannot change and which may be described as simply ‘facts of life’. Such types of inequality among individuals may occur even in societies which strive strictly to adhere to the tenets of what one might call “legitimate or natural equality”, that is: equality before the law; equal liberty for all citizens; and equal opportunities for all members of society as described in this series, especially in the first article entitled “The Several Meanings of Equality”.

In the absence of “legitimate or natural equality”, various kinds of injustices prevail and give rise to many forms of perverse inequalities, within countries and across countries. While it is obvious that not all inequalities are due to injustices, it is true to say that injustices invariably perpetrate inequalities. Some contraventions of “legitimate or natural equality” are extreme, such as slavery and exploitative colonialism achieved through military subjugation. The crassly immoral institution of slavery deprived people of their legal rights and personal liberties and took away all opportunities for their personal development. Worst of all, the enslaved person’s right to exercise his/her God-given Free Will was denied. The effects of slavery may linger for many centuries, especially if the enslaved persons belong to a distinct minority race which may continue to experience discrimination. Thankfully, slavery is now recognized for what it is: crime against humanity. But pure slavery and some less obvious forms of it still exist in some parts of the world, perpetuating gross and outrageous inequalities.

Wherever the rule of law is weak and people are, therefore, not equal before the law, exploitative and greedy groups form and they appropriate for themselves what belong to the whole society. The same is true of undemocratic societies where small groups of individual politicians or soldiers impose themselves on society and systematically plunder the resources of their countries. Over time, the countries become divided into two classes – the wretched masses and the super-rich small groups of false leaders. If the process is not arrested, the countries suffer both moral and economic decay.

The Case of Sub-Saharan Africa

History can also be a major cause of the inequities within a country as well as a country’s relative standing in the world. About the only thing many people in the Western world know about sub-Saharan Africa is that it is a desperately poor region and it is at the bottom of every measure of economic and industrial development. The mass media tell the world that large amounts of help have been rendered and these have made no difference, allegedly for many reasons including the corruption of their leaders and inter-ethnic wars. Only relatively few people outside Africa stop to consider the historical and contemporary causes of the key problems of sub-Saharan Africa, a region which consists of many exploited small countries arbitrarily formed by colonial powers. One should expect instability, political and social chaos when people who differ in culture and language are thrown together to form countries and the countries are perpetually exploited economically through overt and covert means by more powerful countries, including their former colonizers. The ethnic groups (whose differences were deliberately exaggerated during the colonial period in divide-and-rule strategies) have been left to compete violently for political power and to fight for the economic crumbs, which are the heritage of colonial and neo-colonial systems.

And one should not expect aid to make any difference if more than 80 percent of it goes toward paying the fees and expenses of donor-country consultants and much of the rest to import donor-country goods which do not necessarily help to improve the productive capacity of the recipient country. Moreover, arms and ammunition could not have helped to develop sub-Saharan Africa —- and those were the forms in which a lot of aid was given during the period of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Sub-Saharan Africa has never been the beneficiary of the kind of genuine and truly significant aid which the United States gave to Western Europe, South Korea and Taiwan after World War II. On the contrary, that region of the world has continued to be a victim of various forms of exploitation as well as political and economic manipulation. John Perkins has, for example, described in his book entitled “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” (which was a New York Times bestseller in 2004) the subtle and sophisticated but quite devilish methods by which some rich countries undermine and sabotage the development efforts of poor countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Indeed, many African leaders were and are corrupt. But they would stop being corrupt if banks and other financial institutions in Europe, North America and other parts of the world would not receive their stolen moneys. Led by the United States, the Western world has become interested in preventing money laundering since September 11, 2001 in order to starve terrorist organizations of funding. Corruption in sub-Saharan Africa would long have been drastically reduced if their leaders were prevented from laundering their stolen moneys with a zeal similar to the current anti-terrorist financing effort. Moreover, if corruptly acquired assets were returned to the countries or used to offset the foreign debts of African countries, the incentive for corruption would be considerably curtailed and those countries would be much better off. As the new President of the World Bank has stated repeatedly since taking office in June 2005, for every bribe-taker, there is a bribe-giver; in the case of sub-Saharan African leaders, the bribe-giver is invariably from the Western world and the keeper of the bribe is a bank located in the Western world.

Unjust Global Economic Systems

An article entitled “Colonization in a new garb”, which appeared in the September 30, 2005 issue of an Indian newspaper, The Statesman, cited examples of how the global economic system impoverishes poor countries in Africa. The author states:

“The last 20 years of trade liberalization, a condition for aid, loans, and debt relief, have worsened the condition of sub-Saharan African countries. When poor countries phase out measures such as tariffs, quotas and import duties designed to protect their local industries and consumers, imports climb sharply and local producers are priced out of the market by cheaper, often subsidized, Western goods.”

The article cites the case of Ghana in which the local poultry industry collapsed because of dumping of frozen chicken by farmers of the United States and the European Union. The frozen chicken could be sold in Ghanaian markets at about half the price of the local freshly produced chicken only because U.S. and European producers of the frozen chicken were heavily subsidized by their governments. In 1992, Ghanaian farmers supplied 92 percent of the chicken market; by 2001, the local farmers’ share of the market had dropped to only 11 percent. The attempt of the Ghana Government to stop the dumping of frozen chicken by increasing tariffs was reportedly blocked in the name of “free trade” by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. As a result, 400,000 farmers became impoverished.

The prices of the export cash crops produced by sub-Saharan African countries have been fallen dramatically for years while the prices of manufactured goods which they have to import for the purpose of developing their industries, infrastructure, basic health services, etc. have skyrocketed. For example, between 1980 and 2000, the world price of sugar fell by 77 percent, that of cocoa by 71 percent, the price of coffee dropped by 63 percent and that of cotton by 47 percent. Tobacco production employs about 70 percent of the population of Malawi; but the price of tobacco has dropped by 50 percent during the last six years and by 22 percent in 2005 alone. Meanwhile, Malawi is hit by drought and consequent famine. Would it make sense to blame Malawi? Given these statistics and the other issues indicated above, is it any wonder that many sub-Saharan African countries have so many problems? They are, among other factors, victims of an unjust global economic system.

What is the Point and What Should Be Done?

There is an unfortunate tendency for the rich or those who are better off to look down on and blame the poor, whether the poor is an individual, a group, a country, or group of countries. The rich ones presume that the fault is that of the poor. It would, indeed, be true if the poor refused to take advantage of genuine opportunities for improvement. But this is hardly ever the case; on the contrary, the poor is often exploited even within the most developed countries of the world. To dismiss callously the problems of the poor is to display spiritual poverty. A person who is spiritually alive instinctively shows compassion towards the poor; he/she would never condemn or look down on the poor. Specific injustices or unjust systems, past or present, should be of concern to us all because they cause needless poverty and suffering and, of course, lead to perverse inequalities.

As individuals, we should ensure that we do not personally commit acts of injustice and do not condone unjust social, economic, or political systems; for these invariably lead to inequities and perpetuate poverty. Moreover, we should not assume that we have no responsibility for historical injustices, such as slavery. It would be wrong to argue that we have nothing to do with such injustices since they were committed by people who are long dead. Take slavery as an example. There are at least two reasons why we should not be smug or self-righteous about it. First, some people alive today may be descendants of slave owners or slave traders and may have directly or indirectly benefited materially from slave labor through a chain of family inheritances. It is also possible that slave labor might have laid the foundations on which some existing businesses were built; all those who are today beneficially associated with such businesses are in some sense connected to the web of slavery. The second consideration has to do with the fact of reincarnation. Some people alive today (regardless of race or nationality) may have been slave owners or slave traders in earlier incarnations. To the extent that we just might be among such people, we ought to seize any opportunities to help ameliorate any perceived lingering effects of slavery.

It should be remarked that it would be wrong to assume that only people currently incarnated as Caucasians could be former slave owners or that only those currently incarnated as Negros could have been former slaves. The laws of reincarnation are such that some former black slaves may today be incarnated as white individuals while some white slave owners may now be incarnated among the Negro race (See “The Christian and Reincarnation” by Stephen Lampe). What is said about slavery would apply to all types of historical injustices. Thus, as a general principle, no well-meaning person ought to feel indifferent to any kind of injustice. In other words, it is in our enlightened self-interest that we develop a thirst and hunger for justice.

Summing Up

Societies should strive for equality under the law and ensure equal liberty. By enforcing equality under the law and promoting equal liberty, a great deal of injustices which have led to widespread poverty in the midst of plenty would be eliminated. Much of the poverty and suffering in the world today are the legacies of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism as well as unfair economic systems —- systems that could arise and thrive only because of the prevailing spiritual ignorance and spiritual poverty. Furthermore, societies should offer equal opportunities to all their citizens; which means, among other things, that nobody should be allowed to appropriate for himself/herself disproportionate amounts of those things (such as land) which rightly belong to the whole society. It should, moreover, be understood that, on account of individual differences, some citizens may not be able to derive any benefits from opportunities offered. Therefore, mere offers of opportunities might not be enough; it might be necessary to identify those who, for understandable reasons, might not be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered and to explore the possibility of appropriate assistance to such people.

Stephen Lampe