What is the Root of Inequality Amongst People?: Rousseau on America’s Founding Lie of (In)equality

Podcast Link

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, “This is mine”, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” – Rousseau

Every society must justify its inequalities. But, before we get to that, I want to let you know that this episode is going to lay out the then and now of Politics Then and Now a little differently. In the recent episodes I’ve woven in and out of the then and the now, but this one isn’t going to do that. This episode we’re going to bookend the now around the then. So before we get into the political philosophy of it all, let’s lay out the inequalities that America needs to justify today. 

American income inequality is astronomical. The richest 0.1% of Americans have 196 times the wealth of the bottom 90%; of G7 nations (UK, Italy, Japan, Germany, Canada, and France), America has the highest gap of income inequality. The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families has more than doubled since 1989. Over the past five decades, middle class income has grown slower than upper class income. Since 1980, the difference between the pay of a CEO and average employee has jumped six fold to the CEO making 256x their employees. Women make .82 cents on the dollar to men. And, finally, the racial wealth gap has proportionally stayed about the same since 1970, with black people making 61% of what white people do. We’ll be touching back around on this at the end, so store it away. All of these numbers are according to PEW research, by the way.

Anyway, the left faction of the Democratic party thinks that it’s government’s obligation to remedy this problem. But, what if I told you that there’s a very solid reason to believe that America’s founding principles do not agree that that is the role of government at all?

Let’s do a little refresher on the intellectual Forefather of America, John Locke. John Locke believed that government was formed for the sole purpose of the preservation of property. When you realized that living in the state of nature was super inconvenient and kind of dangerous, you decided that you would give up your right to enforce the laws of nature in order to receive protection and third party on behalf of your property (i.e. life, liberty, and possessions).

What we didn’t cover last time, is what his views on property were. You see, to Locke, because the government exists to protect your God given right to property. It cannot take it without your consent nor can it limit how much you can have. When you join society, you give up your right to enforce the laws of nature, not your natural right to property. So, you can have as much property as you want, as long as you follow three rules, which kind of only apply to food and natural resources: you can’t have so much that there isn’t enough for everyone, you can’t leave only bad supply left (e.g. rotten apples), and you can’t let anything spoil. Other than that, it is the law of nature that your property is yours.

This nuanced definition of property might seem trivial and pedantic, but I assure you there are very real world implications for it. Because what it says is that property is natural and pre-societal, meaning you can have it in the state of nature, and thus, in the state of nature, inequality can exist. This means that the justification for inequality in his society, as well as in the United States and other countries founded on Lockean ideas, is that, though we’re all born equal in nature, we don’t live that way. People will naturally come to have more than others, so there’s your answer for inequality. It’s not a problem to be solved by the government. In fact, it’s not really a problem at all, it’s just the way nature works. So, America’s idealistic capitalist system of the cream rising to the top is working, and the income gap is not a flaw of the system, but a manifestation of the freedom of possibilities provided to you should you be capable enough and hard working enough to capitalize on the American dream.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau is going to hard disagree with this idea. A little background first, he was a Swiss born philosopher during the height of the Enlightenment. If you’ve forgotten exactly what that was from high school history, it was the time in the 17th and 18th century in which science took off and the triumph of reason was celebrated. Mankind was unlocking new discoveries and inventions everyday, reason was going to make us all freer and wealthier the idea that the next generation ought to be and will be better off than the last due to societal progress was born. John Locke was one of the first great thinkers of this time. But, Rousseau thought that none of this was true. In fact, the opposite was true. Societal progress was ruining mankind.

Rousseau saw what he called “the two great evils,” property and inequality, as unnatural, societal creations that caused immense suffering to and worsening of the human condition. Many of you might be thinking right now that “wow, he sounds like a communist.” Well, he’s not. Communism wouldn’t come around for around another hundred years-ish and whether or not Rousseau would’ve hopped on board the Marx and Engels bandwagon isn’t a sure thing. So, I ask you to hear Rousseau out, as we go through his own version of genesis that brings us from pre-societal man to Enlightenment man, and see that “progress” maybe has actually made us worse off. Once we get through this story, we’re going to apply it to contemporary America and you’ll be able to judge for yourself if you think he’s got a point or not.

Rousseau came to fame with his essay called “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Amongst Men.” And he starts part 1 of 3 in this essay, as any good social contract theorist, in the state of nature. As you’re listening to this, by the way, you’re sure to think, hmm, I don’t think that’s how things happened exactly. Rousseau knew that too. He’s providing, in part 1, his own origin story of mankind to represent our true nature. 

Anyway, here we go. In the state of nature, people started out as instinctual beasts. We lived like other animals. Eventually, we learned we didn’t need to be afraid of animals because we were smarter than them. 

What’s the state of nature like? Well, it has no excesses of idleness or labor, those are societially made. There certainly aren’t the diseases that plagued the urban centers of Europe for millenia. What Rousseau calls savage man, and he means this affectionately by the way, knew no desire beyond physical wants. He had no existential dread or imposed deadlines. He didn’t fear anything because he didn’t know to fear anything. 

You see, our ability to reason is actually driven by our passions. And it’s by trying to fulfill our passions that our reasoning improves and we come to know things. And by coming to know things we come to know fear and know suffering. But, savage man doesn’t know these things because he doesn’t need to. All he cares about is fulfilling his physical desires.

But, humans still have the capacity for reason within them, and that’s what causes savage man to diverge from the other animals. The first thing he comes to know that animals don’t is death. This is the first step towards civilization. But, before then, savage man is still living an awesome and free, nomadic life. He never has to make a field or labor or fatigue because the products could be stolen anyway, so he never has to break his back toiling the ground. At this point, there is also no need for language, there’s no complaining, and there’s no moral relations or duties. There’s no bad or good, virtue or vice. This is true freedom, and it is so, in large part, because we’re independent.

And in this independence we’re generally peaceful. But why is that? And what is it that led us to not be driven by pure self-love to dominate others? It’s pity. We naturally pity others that are weak; we want to help the dying infant. If not for pity, we would be monsters. All other virtues flow from pity. However, this common bond of pity exists in the savage man but not the civilized one. Think about it, in major cities all over the world, the peak of civilization, people walk by and step over dead homeless people all the time on their way to work because they’ve become hardened and selfish by society. In the state of nature, pity is what checks our self-love and leads us to consult our own happiness with little prejudice as possible to that of others. 

And this is where part 1 ends. We know we’re gonna die, but we’re still pretty carefree, we’re not reliant on anyone, but have the capacity to feel pity for each other. 

In part 2, this changes. Because the idea, well, the lie- of property manifests. Going back to Locke, he believed that if you mixed your labor with an apple, it became your apple. Rousseau says that this is just a lie that everyone came to believe. He famously posits 

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine”, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

This great lie of property didn’t come about all at once, though. First, savage man became aware of his existence. Then, difficulties arose, such as the height of trees and competition with animals. Difficulties increased as the amount of people did. So, he started observing other people to learn what they were doing wrong or right. From this observation, in which he saw that others acted like him, came the first rules of conduct. Next, from this observation, he realized there are times when associating with others could help him. This led to the development of the most primitive of languages. And from there, language and industry and the mind all grew proportionally. 

Eventually, as things got easier and more association happened, people started to fall in love. Every family became its own sort of society. The convenience of not being alone and having help gave him time for leisure. Leisure gave him real wants, our type of wants, that are beyond just physical needs. And this experience is one we can all relate to, that not having something is a misfortune, but to possess it brings no happiness.

Eventually, Rousseau thinks that the difficulties of nature pushed these family units into societies and that this created even more developed language. Next came distinct nations united in character and manner, not laws and regulations, but a uniform manner of life. From these nations commerce arose. Leading to more leisure time. This put man in a place where he started to make comparisons of himself to others and discovered ideas of merit and beauty, creating preferences for the first time. Once this happened, jealousy, of course, followed right behind. At night, they all would rally under the tree and hang out, and started to entertain each other according to their preferences. This was the first step towards inequality and vice. It was the origin of vanity and contempt, envy and shame. Men started creating value for each other. Everyone wanted to be the center of attention and held contempt towards and wanted to seek revenge on those who got it instead of them. This created cruelty.

I know this is quite the build up, but I promise there’s an applicable payoff coming pretty soon.

Anyway, back to it. Rousseau says that this was the point the Native Americans were at, which made people think they were naturally cruel. But, still, Native Americans at this point in societal evolution didn’t really have property, and that was good. Because as even Locke admits “where there is no property, there can be no injury.” Rousseau lamented that we should have gone no further than this.

But, unfortunately for Rousseau, Europe did go way further than this. He says that “it is iron and corn which have civilized men and ruined mankind.” This is because agriculture and iron created more interdependence amongst people, forcing the creation of more jobs relying on one another to increase efficiency. There were now enough people and enough need for industry that land became distributed, which goes against the law of nature. Here is where inequality exploded, as people possessed varying capabilities in terms of morally arbitrary skills. Thus inequality insensibly unfolded due to the difference of their circumstances and lot, and consistently became more permanent.

 At this point, all of our human facilities were activated. Social mores developed, and people want to portray qualities that demanded respect. This created the difference between being and appearing, between lying and truth. This is where vices arose from. From here, man was led to a multitude of new wants and became ambitious, trying to put people under him. Rousseau says he became a slave even in becoming the master of others. Why? Because if you’re rich, you need the assistance of the poor. If you’re poor, you need the money from the rich. The independence enjoyed in the state of nature is gone. And so is that perfect freedom.

But the more man gets, the more he wants. So to keep getting what he wants, he must make people think he’s interested in their happiness, tying them to him. In order to do this, he must become sly and artful in his dealings. He also must become cruel to all those who don’t comply with his will. Having convinced the men beneath him that their fortune is tied to his, they become inspired with an inclination to injure others who stand in their way. But, it’s never enough. Because, as Plato says, “there is no amount of wealth can ever make a bad man at peace with himself.” And, at this developmental point, man is certainly not at peace with himself or others. 

This lack of internal peace and presence of insatiable greed led to invasions and war. 

Man makes use of his old slaves to acquire new ones, like wolves who have once tasted human flesh. Thus, the most powerful and most wretched became more so. This all “stifled the cries of natural compassions.” But, mankind is hooked; he can no longer renounce the unhappy acquisitions he has acquired.

The rich start to realize that they are suffering in perpetual war financially and are vulnerable in mortality. Why? Because, what they had acquired by mere force, could be taken from them by mere force. This leads to petty squabbles over property because, well, it’s arbitrary. This becomes burdensome, though. So, the rich man, thus pressed by necessity, at last conceived the deepest project that ever entered the human mind, to make allies of his enemies

He contrived slimy arguments to bring his enemy into the fold. He said they should unite around his purpose to bring justice to the world. He suggested to his enemy that instead of turning forces against each other, they should collect them into a sovereign power with laws and protection. The other leader, who has also gotten his people to believe that their fortunes are tied to his, agreed. And he sells it to his followers under the guise that it is to secure their liberty. The liberty that they abandoned when they turned to material pleasures. 

What happens next is that the rich get together to make laws that suit them. These laws then increase inequality and forever fix the laws of property and inequality and lack of liberty for the poor that were convinced they were risking their lives fighting to secure it. For the benefit of few ambitious individuals, the rest are subjected to a life of labor, servitude, and misery.

This then created a domino effect. Because, once there’s one society, everyone else must create one in their defense. The civil rule now governed citizens, not the laws of nature. It was now the political body that was in the state of nature, now facing the inconveniences that the human body had, thus leading to lots of wars. This led to the creation of societal prejudices, which made it a virtue and an honor to shed human blood on behalf of the state. The poor subjects, having no long view of their political needs, buy into this completely, unaware that they appointed these leaders to secure their liberties, not be enslaved by them.

And this is where Rousseau viewed Europe to be during the Enlightenment. And thought that the Enlightenment was only proving to exacerbate inequality by celebrating achievements that will further it. 

Now that we have covered what Rousseau thought of the Enlightenment, and seen step by step how coming together and seeking “betterment of society” has actually harmed the well being of people and denied them their liberties, let’s place his analysis upon modern America.

Firstly, Rousseau couldn’t even conceive of modern America in his worst nightmares. He probably would’ve had a panic attack at the Industrial Revolution, let alone the technological one we’re in today. So, I am positive in saying that he would view us as an horrific proof of his theory. We’re the most materialistic society in the world. For a nation born out of the words that “all men are created equal,” he would say that America has practiced, exacerbated, and revered the concept of natural inequality. We worship wealth and fame so much that we made a reality TV star President and a different reality tv star got to meet with that President in the Oval Office. I firmly believe that Kim Kardashian would be Rousseau’s least favorite person to ever exist.

People crave the validation that Rousseau spoke of around the campfire, but now it’s in our pockets all day long. We are constantly comparing our self-worth to others, with the desired end being to go viral on social media to become famous for being famous and thus rich for being arbitrarily famous. Rousseau would point out that this existence is wholly unnatural. We venerate and desire ephemeral, meaningless things via the internet, which, exactly as Rousseau said such tendencies do, has created a culture of incredible cruelty.

It is no wonder that teenagers are experiencing record highs of depression, anxiety, social isolation, low self-esteem, substance abuse, eating disorders etc.- their existence is defined by trading in a meaningless currency, which no matter how much one gets is never enough. It is also no wonder that a nation obsessed with wealth is so divided. We tell ourselves a fairy-tale that we live in a meritocracy and that the best and most worthy are rewarded; that people deserve to be rich or poor, gnoring completely that this inequality is unnatural and that the merits we hold up are morally arbitrary.

This, of course, causes more and more wealth disparity and more and more resentment. The white working class of America acts much like the shortsighted poor that Rousseau speaks about who have completely bought into what their disingenuous leader has sold them, and sacrificed themselves for that very leader who doesn’t care about them. This group of voters has come to resent coastal elites so much that they vote against their economic self-interest because they don’t want “handouts” going to poor people even though they themselves would benefit from increased social programs and it is only their wealthy leaders that benefit. All this underlied by an assumption that inequality is natural and to suggest otherwise makes you a Communist and unAmerican. Rousseau would probably say that in America there is a metaphorical, daily recurrence of the first man who planted his stakes in the ground and said “this is mine” and found people foolish enough to believe him.

The greatest criticism I believe Rousseau would level upon America wouldn’t necessarily be about capitalism, however. Though, I’m sure he wouldn’t love it. It would be that we believe that the inequality of capitalism is natural, when assuredly it is not. An argument could be made, as Adam Smith, the ideological inventor of capitalism, did, that the arbitrary inequality in capitalism is worth it because “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But that is not the way Americans and much of the neoliberal West view it. Instead, there should be no limit to how wealthy a person could become because “they earned it” and to limit that by higher taxes or any sort of wealth redistribution would be punishing success.

America’s third strongest political party, though to be fair, a distant third, the Libertarians, not only fetishize the innovation of the free market, but even have members who will tell you that taxation is theft. Why? Because what is yours is yours by God given right, and thus so is inequality. To Rousseau, America would be the teleological end to what he saw in the Enlightenment. Obsessed with and venerating progress for the sake of progress and profit for the sake of profit, America has molded a society that proactively and proudly defies the laws of nature. 

Like basically everything in America, if we ask where this cultural justification of inequality began, we will soon find the answer in our original sin: slavery. Going back to Rousseau’s “two great evils” of property and inequality, slavery literaly combined them- making people unequal by making them property. So, it can come as no surprise that a nation that believed that inequality was so natural that other people could be traded and treated like property would pervasively justify that massive wealth inequality is ok. 

To believe that this thinking evaporated with the Emancipation Proclamation is- in a word- insane. The threat of formerly enslaved people after 1865 being able to socio-economically match and even usurp European-Americans, who wholeheartedly believed that God Himself had ordained natural racial inequality, led directly to Jim Crow. If you believe this thinking ended with the civil rights act or ended with the Obama presidency, you are not as much too foolish to acknowledge the truth, but too cowardly entrenched in the comforts that a whitewashed American utopia provides.

We talked early in the episode about the racial wealth gap. It is an uncomfortable reality that there can only be two causes of it. First, that centuries of unnatural barriers created this inequality. I’ll just rattle a few off real quick for the sake of some context: Firstly, in 1619, the first group of Africans were kidnapped from their homeland, thrown on a boat, shipped across the Atlantic, and if they survived, were then sentenced to life as slaves. Same for their kids. Same for those peoples’ kids. Same for those peoples’ kids. Same for all their kids until 1865. Then came legalized segregation and discrimination through Jim Crow. Not to mention the KKK. There’s also redlining and housing discrimination. Then there’s police violence. Ok, I’ll stop the list there for the sake of time. 

So, that’s one option for why there is such a big racial wealth gap. The other option is that black people simply are choosing out of laziness, or whatever reason really, to be poor. That black individuals, in the land of opportunity, have that opportunity to be as wealthy as they want, but are choosing not to and that’s both their right and their problem as individuals. Those in opposition to affirmative action and/or reparations for black Americans must believe the latter. 

The real core of this discussion can be reduced to the simple question again: is inequality natural or unnatural? Because if it’s natural, then yeah, it could just be that black people are poor because of their own natural deficits. But, if it’s unnatural, then you have to come to the conclusion that if you put any group of people in similar circumstances that they too would end up in the same place, so there’s probably something structural going on. I’m pretty confident in which of those two Rousseau would say is the case.

I think Rousseau would also point out that America’s conspicuous but unspoken belief in natural inequality evinces itself not just in social policy but in political campaigns. The 2020 campaign brought back the overt “law and order” “southern strategy,” which was first used effectively by Richard Nixon in 1968 and then again in 1972, when he racked up the third most electoral votes ever. The strategy aimed to insinuate to European-American voters that if they were to vote Democrat, then black people would move into their neighborhoods, bringing with them violence and savagery and establishing themselves as the equal to European-Americans. But, in reality, the law and order that he wanted to preserve was the racial inequality that European-American southerners had for generations believed to be their birthright. 

This worked for Nixon. And, I would go so far as to say it worked in 2020 as well. The Trump campaign openly said that this was their strategy. That they would focus on the suburbs of America and warn them that the lawlessness of the cities would come to their doorstep if America voted for Joe Biden. And, they got second most votes for a candidate ever. To be clear, this is not my personal opinion, it is what the Trump campaign said they were doing. 

To finish up Rousseau’s point, I’ll point out that America is in a mental health crisis. America is in an opiod crisis. America is an obesity crisis. America is in an environmental crisis. America is in the midst of a 20 year Middle Eastern crisis. And, oh yeah, America is in the middle of a pandemic, which has killed more people in a year than all of our deaths in World War 2. I think Rousseau’s mic drop would be to point out that had we stayed by the campfire like he said we should have, we’d be much happier and freer. 

This brings me back to what I said at the beginning, that to Rousseau, America is founded on a lie. It is not the land of freedom and opportunity, instead, our interdependence upon each other and forced inequality makes us unfree and everywhere not only in chains, but in love with them. 

 So what, to Rousseau, is the solution to this dire problem? Big picture? I’m not really sure. His solution to the problems of Enlightenment Europe was that the island Corsica off the coast of Italy was going to shock the world and develop a utopian, democratic farming society. Still waiting on that. But, in your everyday life, I think he would say that you should remain as independent as you can. You should not succumb to the lies of modernity, you should, as much as you can, return to your natural self. And, that’s what can make you happy.

Finally, I imagine a lot of people aren’t going to be the biggest fans of what Rousseau had to say. To which I hope to provide comfort to you with the information that everyone hated him when he was alive too.

Published by Noah McMillan

Lover of philosophy, antiquity, and political theory.

One thought on “What is the Root of Inequality Amongst People?: Rousseau on America’s Founding Lie of (In)equality

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: