In Search of Wisdom: What is the Root Cause of Inequality?

Published in: NepalNews.com | INSN.org | Nepalipress.com | PrabasiNepali.com

Is not it the desire of each of us to live with growing wealth that surpasses everyone else’s? Yet, the same “we” seek justice, equality, and social responsibility when we are in the receiving end. We want us to be treated with equal dignity when we run into profound difficulties like natural disaster, illness, unemployment, failure, or injustice. The duality of prosperity and equality is such that they are irreducibly distinct yet one gains significance only in the existence of the other. They are like body and mind, which are distinct but one could not have existed without the other. When there is nothing quantifiable to possess, we would neither know what the share of each individual is nor think of equality; if there was no notion of equality, we would not care that some have more than the others. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is always something to be possessed and our mind is naturally keen on the subject of equality – the interest of this article.

Human as a species has been successful because of its ability to live, work, and produce socially and think individually. In the process, human is exemplifying the equality of individuals when strengthening the cause of the society, but uniqueness of individuals when giving rise to new ideas and innovations. Yet, we have this perpetual confusion in finding the “correct” way of maximizing both equality and prosperity. Amidst this and in the absence of introspection, we are becoming subservient to the mode of operation that finds its roots in immediate gratification better known as “the American Way.” Consequently, many developing countries are giving over emphasis on material prosperity and undermining human equality, delivering neither the stated prosperity nor the social values that make them survive against odds. Nepal is one of those countries that got a rude awakening from the pitfalls of blindly pursuing “the American Way” and its promoters are crying foul today when people knocked them off from the chair.

Equality, after all, is an exemplary measure of the health of a society. Although never attainable, equality is a goal worthy enough to be strived for at all times. The farther we drift away from equality, the more restless and chaotic our society becomes. Yet, equality is not something to be pursued senselessly but with understanding of its roots.

All the ponderings on this issue lead me to conclude that among all the causes of inequalities, the most dominant cause is the “inequality in capacity” among the members of a society. Capacity is the ability to receive and retain, or a measure of volume of a human trait or possession. It is due to difference in capacity that two water vases with different sizes can hold unequal amount of waters. A small vase can never hold as much water as the big one; and, therefore, there is inequality. This is as simple as saying that an adult has the capacity to scold or beat an infant but the infant has lesser mental and physical capacity to counteract. A slum in Nepal has no car in lack of financial capacity. A child of distraught family performs poorly in school due to physiological, material and functional incapacity. The growth of all forms of inequalities is ensured by the inequalities in the opportunity to build human capacity.

A point to note here is that some capacity differences are natural and others are artificial. Einstein had a mental capacity superior to most of us, but in specific areas. I wonder how good a carpenter, telemarketer, manager, or singer he would have been although his contributions in philosophical and mathematical space were unquestionably supreme. The same applies to physical capacity. My brother is stronger than me and Picasso was a superior artist than Einstein. But my brother is of no disadvantage to me, nor was Picasso to Einstein. These natural differences in physical, mental, and intellectual capacities do not in themselves add to inequality as long as all are allowed to develop one or another faculty where they are best at. In fact, our natural differences are those wondrous gifts that add to the diversity and resilience of our society.

But there is another world of inequality out there. The last king of Nepal and his son are the wealthiest in Nepal even outside royal inheritance. Their wealth was granted to them by particular institutional arrangements specifically made to be on their favor. The conditions or opportunities in Nepal at the time were such that those connected to the top would be superbly wealthy and a person of equal or more intellectual potential with customary upbringing would grow illiterate, let alone be wealthy like them. Historical opportunities presented to the king’s family and their mega plunders demonstrated that the king did not have the right kind of mental capacity to handle those opportunities. This makes us wonder, what should be the extent of wealth or power to which inheritance has a utility to a society beyond the providence of social security to individuals. I know that there are sufficient numbers of intelligent and privileged skeptics to dispute this. But I have to say that the incapacity of the traditionally privileged to see the inherent potential of the regular people is keeping the poor countries in the state of poverty and indignity.

I received more formal education than my childhood friends from my village near Baglung, Nepal. This was due to getting better opportunity to develop my capacity compared to my friends. Given that others had gotten similar opportunities to develop themselves, they would have had tangible success in various fields. Most of us shared similar difficulties like poor hygiene, poor health, diseases, rough environmental conditions, poor clothing, parental-illiteracy, and so on. Many of us also experienced comparable positive experiences like predictable livelihood, providence of love, and the opportunity to freely and richly interact with the land, farm, cattle, flora, fauna, and people around us. However, there were a few subtle differences in conditions available to us. I was spared from performing grinding labor, did not have to face family misfortunes like some others, received an extra dose of encouragement and love, had a role model at young age, and had fortune to learn from out-of-town teachers who stayed with our family while I was young. My relative success during those years was unnoticeably building my capacity and courage, preparing me for taking larger challenges of the future. Such conditions were unavailable to most of my friends, although many of them had talents similar or superior to me. Equally significant credit may go to the absence of negative conditioning on me. No one told me that I was unattractive, not-smart, or incapable. I remember being treated at home as if I was a star. When I heard of Yuri Gagarin going to space and Neil Armstrong landing on moon, or read about Marie Curie and Isaac Newton, I dreamt of becoming one of them. No one told that I cannot. By the time my limits were told, capacity had already been created for achieving something.

Modern research is demonstrating that learning starts in the womb and ends at death and the capacity of our brain to learn is limitless. By this token, every one of us has ample chances to be brilliant in one or another area if sufficient opportunity to harness our potential were to be available. However, the inherent confidence and learning faculties of most people in poor countries are damaged early in the childhood thereby limiting their capacity to grow intellectually and in all other ways. William Hazlitt said, “As is our confidence, so is our capacity.” I would, therefore, say, the stunting of our confidence in early childhood is the primary reason for our stunted capacity as adults. So many children grow never feeling special – unlike all others; no one tells them that they have the characters to be Kalidas, Gandhi, Einstein, or Tagore. Instead, we are providing unequal conditions to children and telling them “what they cannot be” thereby creating such profound differences in their confidence and capacities that the damage is permanent to them and to the society.

“Everything comes to us that belongs to us if we create the capacity to receive it”, said Rabindranath Tagore. Therefore, receiving right opportunity to develop our capacities early on is fundamental to our future success. Otherwise, our growth becomes stunted throughout our life. Like two identical seeds produce seedlings that can turn into trees of different sizes and health depending on the conditions they were subjected to, people also develop different capacity based on the conditions they are subjected to at an early age. Given right conditions, every person makes a likely candidate to become a genius and to be a source of imaginations, innovations, and productions.

Unfortunately, we have no shortage of shortsighted leaders who think that human ingenuity is the product of wealth. They pass on the responsibility of developing the capacity of their people to a few wealthy members of the society or to foreign companies. And, they cannot deliver right results. If the leaders were thoughtful enough to take the responsibility of building the capacity of their citizens, the people themselves would have created power, honor, and wealth to their country because the wealth is nothing but the product of our capacity to think, organize, and persevere. Therefore, our wealth grows in proportion to our capacity to learn, think, configure, and create. But such capacity cannot be built in the absence of unity and will power; we must first believe that “I can do it”.

Therefore, an intense focus on building mental capacity of citizens not only cures the malice of inequality like castes, creeds, racism, subjugation, discrimination and dominance, but also solves the problem of poverty, backwardness, and economic stagnation. By continually improving our intellectual capacity, we acquire the ability to contemplate on everything that is around us and are able to discern the right from wrong, conquer petty desires, and think for the good of a country and the world. Nurturing of and feeling for children that initiates augmentation of their capacity from the time of conception and birth harnesses manifold return for the society.

The role of capacity is not only limited to individuals but also to institutions and the countries. The capacities of institutions – to think, adapt, be accountable, and resolve conflict – determine the level of stability in the institutions and the society. Therefore, the issue of capacity building is important even for the national governments. The effect of increased capacity of individuals and institutions manifests directly in increased peace, stability, rule-of-law, innovation, and good governance in the country. Individuals could experience knowledge, honesty, equity, justice, freedom, and wealth and the country may experience stability, honor, influence, and prosperity. As the world is becoming increasingly connected and full of complex-interactions, no country of our time will be able to ignore the pursuit of knowledge for its people. Those communities and countries that fail to maximize the mental capacity of their citizens, instill courage, and create the conditions for innovation and entrepreneurialism will be left in the dustbin of history.

Then one may say, “Why is there inequality in the developed countries where there are sufficient provisions to develop capacity of individuals?” I say, “They are missing the condition part.” As much as it is important to produce capable and courageous people, so is it to provide right opportunity and environment to harness their capabilities. Lack of opportunities and environments kill human spirit and success, someday if not today! Simply because they produce very large number of capable people of which a fraction stumbles upon some right opportunities, developed countries are functioning alright. However, capabilities of people are so underutilized in the developed countries that they are on the verge of being devoured by the disease of discouragement. So many potential scientists with PhD degrees are driving taxi and working in gas stations thereby killing their dreams and self-esteems, and being lesser role models to their children. Successes of so many capable people are stunted in lack of opportunities that there is an incredible waste of human potential. Even among the “rightly” employed, there is huge mismatch between what people are capable of and what they do. There are fixed chunks of life given to education, work, and retirement. In a fast changing world, it is like getting educated in one era, working in another era, and retiring in yet another. Already, the signs of stress are ample. But everything is conveniently left to the market to be sorted out by itself. No wonder, hardly any child today hangs the pictures of Einstein and Newton in his or her bedroom!

In conclusion, the most profound factor in perpetuating human inequality is the inequity in the opportunity to develop and then utilize the intellectual capacity of individuals. The “capacity” and “courage” of individuals and equity in the available “conditions” together determine how solid our fundamentals are in building an equitable society. When conditions are right for individuals to fully develop their potentials and to inspire courage to harness them, the fabric of inequality shrouding our society becomes weak and equality starts taking roots. And continuous strengthening of this process leads to ever more equitable and prosperous society.

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