‘All men are created equal’ declared by Thomas Jefferson seems to be, at first glance, an utmost agreeable proposition. But a quick examination reveals this to be fundamentally untrue, at least in practice, on many specific levels. The gender inequality is a hot topic in the recent months, with Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock (along with their colleagues Iowa representative Steve King, Pennsylvania Senate candidate Tom Smith and Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard) trying to convince women never to vote for the GOP again. Of all inequalities between people the most prominently discussed is the economic inequality, most commonly associated with the distribution of wealth. The observed concentration of capital was predicted by Marx in Das Kapital, and believed to be one of the main reasons for an inevitable crisis, with a select few wealthy capitalists confronted by vast, poor masses. The concentration of capital is believed to be the most important factor in the overall inequality, but I think that this may be an incorrect assumption, as the inequalities may be a function of another one, in my view deeper in its nature: information inequality. Neither the debates nor the public discourse at large is taking a look at information inequality, despite it being a foundational problem, greater than most of the topics discussed.
Information is described as a negative measure of uncertainty, therefore the less information one has the less certain his situation is. Classical economics did not pay attention to these inequalities, assuming, much as Jefferson has with the quoted words, that everyone is equal in the market, having the same (that is to say all) information. This was quite correct in the simple economies hundreds of years ago, but is no longer true with the economies filled with information and people lacking it. In reality then, and in information economics, if one person has more information then he will use this advantage to exploit the other one, economically and otherwise. This is a problem because big corporations and wealthy people have better access to information than the masses, making the latter slide further down on all scales, perpetuating all inequalities. I think we can trace the origin of all inequalities to differences in information; the first political and religious systems being set up by people with better access to information, securing their social position this way. Modern capitalists most often started their careers by exploiting their information advantage, too.
The information inequality is not only making the differences between people prone to inflation, but is also destructive to the society on many other levels. First of all the extreme separation between peoples in a nation threatens its identity and perhaps, in the long term, even existence. But the inequalities also hurt the democratic system we have. This system is not a true democracy (which would not be supported by anyone in the first place, no one would want 60% of people to be able to vote for executing the other 40%), but large inequalities in information levels are making the system necessarily less democratic. The system would work worse with more democracy introduced, because the more people at large decide on the issues the less information is put into the decisions (larger groups commonly have less information (or information of the lowest common denominator) as a whole, sometimes less than their individual parts have – a curiosity not only found in sociology but also in physics with the behaviour of quantum information), and the less certainty the whole situations and its outcome has. So the democratic systems with uninformed masses will be either making horrible decisions or alternatively perpetuating the divisions by taking the power away from the masses.
It is not only politicians ignoring these issues for the sake of safe discourse, even Joseph Stiglitz, the father of information economics, does not appear to see* the importance of information inequality, and only talks about it indirectly, with a few mentions of education polities. These policies are indeed one of the most important ways to deal with the problem (as the systematic pursuit of knowledge is the only social structure opposing the polarisation), but not looked as they are currently by the majority. Right now people look at higher education not as a way to enhance their information or knowledge, but only as a way to invest in their future employment possibilities, or directly into their labour potential, therefore their internalised capital. Veblen, in his 1918 book “The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men” argued that the use of business standards to measure the conduct of academic pursuit was suffocating higher education, turning them into technical schools and not places in which to find information in its purest form.
The coverage of the recent Harvard cheating scandal provides a good example of this mentality being in place still. In one paper you could read the condemnation of dishonest behaviour of the students (one wonders when a phrase like ‘war on cheating’ will surface) but another journalists would be busy insisting that this kind of behaviour shows developed collaboration skills needed in the economy. The latter is not an isolated view, people are looking at education as a slave to the business. The real problem is different however: if people cheat then they are less likely to know what they ought to know and they diminish the value of their education and their own information content, making themselves prone to be drowned by the impending tides of inequality.
If the inequality in information is not diminished then the inequality in wealth and power will not be diminished either. And as long as the politicians and the people will look at education as a vehicle for creating jobs the problem will not be resolved, and the inequalities of all sorts will spread further, leading to more financial and social crises. While the Republican Party is the one usually propagating teaching nonsense and making the masses less intelligent as a result, the political left is talking about financing education and delivering it to more people so that they can have jobs, but never looking at education as something else than a vehicle for job creation. As long as the political scene and the press are perpetuating, to borrow a phrase from Kingsley Amis, a ‘funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems’ we will have a society where people are filled with, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s term, unknown unknowns, unaware of their desperate position and its origins, and not a society where everyone can prosper.
This essay first appeared in The Firebrand Magazine.