Inequality creates instability, and not just because of the resentments the increasingly poor majority harbours against the increasingly rich minority. Everyone has a mix of good ideas and terrible ones, but for most of us, the harm from our terrible ideas is capped by our lack of political power and the checks that others – including the state – impose on us.
As rich people get richer, however, their wealth translates into political influence, and their ideas – especially their terrible ideas – take on outsized importance.
While Saudi hydrocarbonism denies humanity to women, American hydrocarbonism denies credibility to climate scientists. This is a much more democratically stupid idea in that it will kill rich people as well as poor: even the best-guarded McMansion is still epidemiologically linked to the people dying of tuberculosis outside its walls, and mosquito-borne Zika doesn’t care about your wealth.
In Britain we have the weaponisation of shelter, in which homes become a speculative investment instead of a human right, which massively unbalances the UK economy while distorting work, education and family life – even as our cities fill up with empty tower blocks laden with celestial safe-deposit boxes that may be money laundries for offshore criminals first, and only incidentally places where someone might live, someday.
Letting small elites enforce their cherished, foolish ideas as iron-clad law eventually produces a state so badly run that it collapses, either through revolution or massive reforms (see, for example, Brazil). Smart unequal societies prevent collapse by convincing their elites to hand over some of their earnings to the rest of the country, producing broadly shared prosperity and a sense of national solidarity that transcends class resentments (see, for example, Sweden).
After all, there comes a point when the bill for guarding your wealth exceeds the cost of redistributing some of it, so you won’t need so many guards.
But that’s where technology comes in: surveillance technology makes guarding the elites much cheaper than it’s ever been. GCHQ and the NSA have managed to put the entire planet under continuous surveillance. Less technologically advanced countries can play along…
As technology pervades, spying becomes cheaper and inequality becomes more stable – but not infinitely stable. With enough inequality over enough time, the cherished idiocies of the ruling elites will eventually cause a collapse. All technology does is delay it, which is terrible news, since the longer a foolish policy is in place, the more of a policy-debt we incur, and the worse the payback will be: lost generations, rising seas, etc.
Walkaway represents a hopeful future. Hopeful futures aren’t places where nothing goes wrong; they’re places where, when things go wrong, people can put them back to rights.
Designing systems on the assumption they’ll never fail doesn’t give you good systems, it gives you the Titanic. Smart engineers know entropy isn’t just a good idea, it’s the (second) law (of thermodynamics) and plan accordingly, designing systems that glide to a graceful halt when they go wrong – rather than exploding in a cloud of white-hot shrapnel.
Technology is not preordained to save us from inequality, but without a free, fair and open network with which to rally and marshal the forces of justice, the battle is lost before it’s even joined.