Is inequality essential for a State to be a Great Power?

mmghosh's picture

We have recurring ambition to be a Great State.  Never mind the fact that we cannot provide security for our citizens, we do feel a need to lecture other nations on security.


OTOH there is a theory that Great States need a certain degree of inequality to become Great States.  Bird Dog recently linked to this great article by Mr David Brooks where he outlines this view succintly.

Americans don’t particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidize their health care. They believe that health care spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent.


So far, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vise. But that is about to change. Oswald Spengler didn’t get much right, but he was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.

Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting. As late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 percent of G.D.P. on defense. Now that spending is closer to 1.5 percent, and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further.


Mr Brooks doesn't spell out why inequality is essential for Great Power status, but one can read a little between the lines.  Presumably less welfare spending ensures more competition, more living on the edge, a more competitive labour pool - sharpens the appetite for conflict and so forth.  And indeed, the nations currently aspiring Great Power status, the BRICS, all stand out in that they are accelarating inequality.


So is it true?  Do we really need inequality to further Great Power status?  Statistics would appear to bear this out, so perhaps we need to consider and discuss this theory before rejecting it out of hand.  Looking just at lessons learned from Americans, we see that as the America grew to be the world's premier and unchallenged military power from the 1950s through to the 2010s

When compared with the average of peer countries, Americans as a group fare worse in at least nine health areas:

• infant mortality and low birth weight
• injuries and homicides
• adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
• HiV and AiDS • drug-related deaths • obesity and diabetes • heart disease • chronic lung disease • disability
Many of these conditions have a particularly pro- found effect on young people, reducing the odds that Americans will live to age 50 (see figures on next page). And for those who reach age 50, these conditions contribute to poorer health and greater illness later in life.

Not only that, Americans are pretty low in the group of 17 comparably wealthy nations in basic statistics such as life expectancy, IMR and so forth.  Now, America being vastly more heterogeneous than, say, Japan, it means that average statistics show clearly that at least the upper 50th centile (the articulate and involved) is probably faring better than the corresponding centile in Japan.  And at the same time, the lower centiles are probably doing considerably worse than similar populations in the other, more homogeneous states.  We track American levels of inequality here - and anecdotally, so do the other BRICS; clearly we prefer the American model to, say, the European one.  Are we right to do so?    

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US public perception of class conflict


Surprisingly, it's not high by historical standards, and seems to be falling:

This graph comes from an article by Catherine Rampell of the NYT's economix blog. I am secretly in love with Catherine Rampell, pictured below:

You're getting causation wrong.

Bernard Guerrero's picture

Growth results in inequality.  


A) The basic driver of per capita growth (as opposed to simply harnessing currently unused labor or capital) is improvements in technology and organization.


B) To the extent a system is set up to encourage these things, it will result in unequal rewards.  This holds true even for nominally egalitarian systems; when the USSR wanted to get world-class results in field X, it tended to set up specialized institutions, towns, even cities wherein the privileged specialists in X lived at a much higher standard of living than the Soviet median.  Most people are mediocre at most things, by definition.


C) Human nature being what it is, those rewarded tend not to be content with immediate rewards, but rather prefer to offer their offspring, relatives and friends as many lasting advantages as possible.  Also, to be frank, they'd rather not have to work as hard as they might have to climb up the ladder in the first place.  So you always get attempts to convert rewards into reliable, long-lasting (even dynastic) rents.


You may picture here a Khaldun-like cycle, wherein rapid real growth is driven by relatively egalitarian starting states (I.e. post war SK and Taiwan, after land reforms) but must, by the very fact that it happens, create vested interests, bureaucracies, sacred cows, etc., eventually slowing growth.


(This is distinct from but related to the harnessing of fallow resources, whether labor or capital.  You can get growth without this.  OTOH, growth in relatively poor places has usually involved bringing a lot of fallow resources into the system. I.e. early Soviet growth, Taiwan, SK, China, etc.  and merely having a lot of fallow resources doesn't cut it, witness most of Africa until very recently.)


Growth, in turn, provides the surplus necessary to project power.

That is a good explanation.

mmghosh's picture

Although to manage to get protection while carrying on with a comfortable European life might not seem such a bad outcome in many ways.  


Its only in the past few years that Europe is getting a bad rap; Spain ran surplus budgets until recently IIRC.


I'm not alone here in my preference for a comfortable cerebral Japanism or Europeanism over a society dedicated to overt imperialism.  Accepting your thesis, it should not be impossible for rational people to figure out a system where you can get growth without increasing inequality.  As for turning the future generation into rentiers, AFAIK, all my peers attempt the reverse - for their children - more education, more stimulus, encourage more courses, expose to more experiences (although granted this may just be a South Asian/East Asian thing). 


The admirable and hopeful part of the evolving China story, increasing inequality or other problems notwithstanding, is the fact that the second most economically powerful state in the world has not a single overseas military base, or is engaged in a transcontinental conflict.  This is definitely both a first, and could be something of a historical gamechanger when China does become the world's largest economy within a few years.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Not historically

HankP's picture

inequality arose with agriculture, as the strongest set up a protection racket to shield farmers from raids. They skimmed the profits, which enabled them to spend money on whatever they wanted to (usually defense since they were the ones who would get slaughtered if they lost). But there's no reason that growth has to result in inequality, it certainly didn't in the middle years of last century. You're just parroting the standard dumbed-down capitalist propaganda.


I blame it all on the Internet

Miliatary Powers built on the backs and blood of the poor?

brutusettu's picture

Is inequality that creates boatload of plebians willing to join the military rank and has the plebs fund the military, instead of goods and services for themselves, essential for a State to be a Great Military Power?