As with many of us, I’ve been thinking deeply lately about the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and so many other people of color, and wondering how and why these atrocities continue to occur in my country, and what we can do to turn things around.
Naming the Societal Models
I’ve concluded that there are basically two types of human societies, with very different ways of thinking about themselves.
Let’s call the first type of society the egalitarian model. In this model — as with all human societies — there are various schemes for specialization and the productive division of labor, but all of the different roles that people play are perceived to have roughly equal value. Everyone contributes to society, and everyone is valued. Sure some people may make a little more than others, but all members of society have enough income to live happy, fulfilling lives.
Let’s call the second type of society the hierarchical model. In this model, people are placed on a value hierarchy based on their roles in society, with some at the top being regarded as highly valuable, while those below are accorded decreasing assessments of value, until those towards the bottom are considered to have little or no value to society.
In other words, we can have one type of society in which every human being is viewed as worthy and valuable, or we can have a very different sort of society in which most people are viewed as nearly worthless, with a few towards the top of the heap considered to have supreme value.
In terms of politics and economics, it’s easy to associate the hierarchical model with the old schemes of royalty, and to equate the egalitarian model with the democracies that followed. In other words, “Let them eat cake” vs. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
If only it were that simple.
Exterior and Interior Aspects of the Models
Let us first consider the exterior aspects of the two models. The egalitarian model depends on perhaps three different factors.
- There must be sufficient wealth to support middle class lifestyles for the large majority of its members.