The theory of kleptocracy
First, let’s use a theory from Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond as the center-piece for this little theory. In Chapter 14, entitled “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” Diamond postulates that more stratified societies are by definition less egalitarian , but more efficient and are, thus, able to eradicate or conquer more egalitarian, less stratified societies. Thus, all ‘advanced’ societies with high levels of GDP are complex and hierarchical.
The problem is: these more stratified, more complex societies are in essence Kleptocracies, where those in power re-distribute societal wealth to themselves. Those at the bottom of the society’s pyramid accept this unequal, non-egalitarian state of affairs because they too benefit from their society’s relative advancement. It’s a case of a rising tide lifting all boats.
Diamond says the Kleptocrats maintain power using 4 different methods:
“1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite.”
“2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways.”
“3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence. This is potentially a big and underappreciated advantage of centralized societies over noncentralized ones.”
“4. The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.”
Kleptocracy in America?
The obvious corollary of this theory is that most successful modern societies are, in fact, kleptocracies. The key is to use the four methods to gain popular support in order to re-distribute as much wealth to the ruling class as the populace will support. If the ruling class takes too much, it will be overthrown and replaced by a new ruling class (which in turn will re-distribute wealth to itself using the same four methods).
While this angle seems cynical, it is a a line of argument that has great internal consistency.
So, is the United States a kleptocracy? Of course it is! Is that bad? Well, it obviously depends on who you are in society. But, it also depends on whether the kleptocracy is efficient and fair over the long term. Let me explain this last statement a bit more.
Efficiency and Fairness
Because any heavily stratified society is by its very nature non-egalitarian, there always exists the potential for disenchantment amongst the masses. The U.S. is no exception. In order to prevent this disenchantment from leading to revolt, the ruling class must appear to strive for efficiency and fairness.
According to dictionary.com, efficiency means “accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.” So, for the US, it means the ability to increase productivity at a rate which makes the U.S. wealthier on a per capita basis now and in the future. And remember, it is the perception of efficiency, not actual efficiency which is important.
To be fair is to be “free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.” For the United States, this means maintaining the perception that most every person has the opportunity to succeed while few, if any, have unobstructed paths to guaranteed success.
Is the U.S. efficient and fair?
That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it. My populist take: no, the United States is neither efficient nor fair.
The United States has been living beyond its means for some time. Since the 1960s, we have run up a massive federal debt and current account deficit, while debt levels have doubled on a percentage of GDP basis.