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Social Wealth Revisited

Pictures and Essays by Martin Hunt

Social Wealth Revisited
I go with Locke - that which you produce in a state of nature is yours alone. But - as he also noted - nobody is in a state of nature because we all live in societies. There is a reason for that - we are social creatures and have been since before we were human.

And why would a species evolve to become social? Obviously because it enhanced the reproductive success of the society members. And the question is; why would living in society enhance reproductive success? Imagine how a simple thing like a snare could enhance an individual’s chances of catching food which would increase their chance of reproductive success. Imagine that rather than having to invent snares a person saw another person using a snare and copied the idea. The effectiveness of their hunting would increase and that increase would be due to them living in a society where they could have other people to copy.

I don’t think it makes sense to talk of pre-humans as owning wealth. I imagine them in groups like baboons or chimps that have their squabbles but all eat from the same source. Wealth came way after in the form of built and conserved resources. But wealth is the same “increasing the effectiveness of their hunting” above - it’s something that depends on people being in a society.

Say I want a table.
If I was in a state of nature that would be impossible; in a state of nature I wouldn’t even know what a table was let alone the benefit of it. I’m in society though and can make a table. I can buy the materials (no need to cut down trees and make boards). I can buy the tools and fasteners I need to work with the materials. The table I end up with is not something I could have made in a state of nature and it has a value - ie is wealth because it is a built and conserved resource. That wealth is only possible because I work in society. A society that provides me with resources and tools and ideas.

If someone helps me build my table their participation in helping me make the table gives them a share of the table. That obtains no matter how we negotiate how to handle the situation.
My helper may offer the help as a gift, Or I might pay for the help. Or say you can use this table on Mondays. Lots of ways to negotiate how to handle that share .

The point here is that if society helps me build that table, which it does in myriad ways, then I owe society a share of that table too. That share is what I call social wealth. Social wealth is the share of what we produce that is owed to society because society increases the productivity of our efforts.

(I must be clear - this is distinct from ideas of social wealth that talk about the bounty of nature as social wealth but it does relate to how many people like unpaid caregivers are a part of social wealth)

With a table it’s not practical to divy up shares in the thing. Other things are different. Agriculture is a pretty clear example. If one person helps another grow and harvest a crop I’d say they are entitled to a share of the crop. Just what that share is has always been negotiable - ranging from bare subsistence to comfortable living - but it has always been there too. And ancient agricultural societies have always found a way to collect what they are owed as social wealth.

At that point the story gets muddied up because we call such collection taxation and we know that taxation is not always a benign collection of something owed. Taxation has often amounted to plunder and has a bad rap. So let’s detach the idea of social wealth from taxation.
Social wealth is the wealth that belongs to society as a whole because of the benefits the members of society derive from membership are far greater than the benefits they could get if they worked alone in a state of nature. And society deserves it’s share. The process of collection looks like taxation but isn’t plunder. It’s just collecting a debt owed and we don’t think of repaying a debt as being plundered.

Since social wealth is the result of the increase in productivity that occurs when people work in society we need to consider that not everyone gets the same increase. Some people don’t really do much better living in society than they would in a state of nature. They aren’t living in a state of nature of course, but they can barely subsist on what their effort produces. I’d say that since they aren’t really benefitting from living in society they don’t owe a share of social wealth to society. Other people are in a different position in society and the effect of their efforts are huge. The clear example is people who inherit fortunes - they get huge benefits for basically no effort. Clearly the society has magnified the effect of their efforts a lot and is entitled to a generous repayment. Between the extremes of unearned poverty and unearned wealth there are lots of details about just who owes how much of what they produce as social wealth that will take a lot of consideration.

What does a society do with the social wealth it gathers? Obviously it supports costs of government and infrastructure. Also (I’d say) on things like free education and healthcare for all citizens. And Universal Basic Income which would protect the unlucky from the torment of poverty. Scientific research is important. I’m not into the military much, but I admit that every society has to spend a lot on defense. There are lots of things a society can do with it’s wealth.

And it’s why I think democracy is so important. Without democracy it’s plutocrats, despots, and warlords that control social wealth.

What do you think?

Martin Hunt - 2017