In Parts 2 and 1 of this series I wrote about the cultural and possibly even genetic basis for cooperation among non-related individuals and how this phenomenon, obvious in so much of our lives (think of sports teams or companies), is dismissed as irrelevant or ephemeral by the Chicago School-Milton Friedman crowd who contend that self-interest is the one and only drive in our economic and social worlds. I referenced Peter Turchin's excellent book War and Peace and War and the work of economists using games such as The Public Goods Game and The Ultimatum Game to demonstrate the conditions under which people in groups or in tandem cooperate, cheat or withdraw support from exchange. There is one very clear indicator in the historical of a society's "cooperation quotient". Taking a page from Fox News's playbook (and Al Franken's mockery of it), let me say that "you'll be amazed at what was found!!"
Before getting to the historical record, the question may arise as to how useful the findings from such games are when referencing "real life", as it were. That's a great question. Exposing the existence of such dynamics is all well and good, but how do these dynamics actually play out in the world?
Fortunately, there are detailed historical records of economies that chart centuries worth of behavior (the equivalent of the 10 rounds of play imposed in The Public Goods Game, and then some!), notably Chrisopher Dyer's Making a Living in the Middle Ages, which gives an overview of the work of those many historians researching that topic.
Have you ever heard of "The Matthew Principle"? Neither had I until recently. The Matthew Principle per se was coined by the sociologist Robert K. Merton and takes its name from the following passage in the Gospel of Matthew: "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath." You might say that this has been the guiding principle of the Bush Administration: Give to those who have, and take away from those who have not." Turchin writes that "in the language of dynamical sciences, this is called a positive feedback loop - the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." (Turchin himself is theoretical biologist steeped in statistical analysis, according to his books dust jacket, so he has a background in dynamical sciences and mathematical modeling.)
Turchin ran a lot of models to explore the process of how agrarian societies come to distribute wealth and income, which in those societies amounted to how much land a person owned. What his models described was a process in which those below a certain threshold of ownership - the poor - gradually lose whatever land they had owned and ownership of land becomes concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. Sound familiar? Seems like some of that is going on right now throughout our society. But Turchin was not content to rely on modeling as evidence. He wanted to study the historical records and, most importantly, understand the interactions between wealth distribution and civil society. That's where Dyer's book and other documentation come into the story.
The record shows waves or oscillations as you might expect. In the early 1200s the rich in England were decidedly richer than the poor, but not conspicuously so. By 1300, 3% of the population was "wealthy" 20% had surplus, 30% were substistence farmers and 47% had nothing at all. Wealth inequality was conspicuous. David Hackett Fischer's The Great Wave goes into detail about the cycles and is an incredible resource on this subject.
The cycles go on, though not in a uniform manner. What remains consistent, however, is the degree of social strife that exists whenever there is conspicuous inequality of wealth. As you might imagine, as the rich accumlate more and more of the wealth in the society, the capacity of the various classes and members of the society for cooperation decreases. This decrease in the "Cooperation Quotient" undermines the vigor of that society and leaves it vulnerable to collapse. Hence Turchin's title, War and Peace and War.
The damage done by "Trickle Down" economics can be seen by anyone with eyes today. There's also a clear historical record of how deadly to a society such inequality actually is. Some contend that there is a natural distribution, the so-called 80-20 Principle, that shows up in many different phenomena, not just economics alone. I'm not equipped to discuss that. What seems clear from Turchin's excellent work and from the historical record is that the US is on a collision course with history and that the gross inequality in the distribution of wealth in our society is a major factor in the coming reckoning. The Democrats newly elected to the majority have the chance to hold accountable those "freeriders" who have abused the cooperative spirit of our culture for their own benefit. By assuming the position of the "punishing moralist" with respect to the "evil doers" among us (transnational corporations, etc.), the Democratic Party will serve us all by preserving the very capacity for cooperation. Without such accountability, the slide toward increased conflict among us is, by the lights of the historical record, inevitable.