January 9, 2013
Empowering Women is the Route to Equality
by W Scott Thompson
I am rereading Alexis de Toqueville’s astonishing 1835 Democracy in America. Even then in his travels he appreciated that the southern slave-owning gentry were fully aware that the North would get richer compared with them precisely thanks to the increasing inequality in the South. But it couldn’t be discussed.
The slave owner was paying for the non-productive childhood and old age of his slaves. The workers had no incentive to produce more or innovate. In the North, almost everyone worked, and greater profit came from innovation and greater productivity. Formal equality made you richer and richer. Or as I saw as a boy in a border state, the local makers had only half a market, as the African Americans were held down — still — too much to add to the buying public.
Tocqueville goes on, wrongly as it happens, to foresee the hopelessness of the “negroes”. There could never be equality, so ingrained was the prejudice, and the blacks had nothing to do but accept their degradation and base status, uselessly aping the life of their master. He would not have believed a Barack Obama could be president in 10 centuries. But then he was right — it has taken almost two centuries to get past halfway towards real equality.
Today, the biggest problem in the march to equality (apart from the march away from it in the US and to a lesser extent in other rich countries) is in empowering women. True, perhaps the one good thing that came out of communism in Russia and China was the at least theoretical equality established between the genders. India’s rape last month has at last awakened the country to its daunting problem, and in a very big way. But in the two biggest countries, India and China, the problem in maintaining demographic ratios of equality is the preference still for male babies. There would be about 40 million more women in India today had no such steps — abortion of female foetuses or even death for female babies — been taken, according to demographic estimates.
Africa has few bright lights. A United Nations study found that women, measuring relative work contributions by caloric output, did over three-fourths of the work, not even including birthing. There are NGOs springing up all over opposing female circumcision — it’s quite a different thing for them than for men, and has no positive health benefits. It’s all to keep them in their place. It’s brutal.
Someone did a correlation between per capita income and the role of women. Guess what, the greater the equality the higher the PCI (Japan being a curious exception). And the glaring black area of the globe was the Middle East, and, to a much lesser extent, South Asia. Things are changing constructively in Southeast Asia. The Philippines has had two women presidents, but both “heirs”. And I note in my village that on weekends the men still sit outside gossiping and drinking rough — very rough — gin, while their asawa labour in the kitchen to bring them plates of food to nibble on. Little need be said of the macho culture of Latin America.
In the march towards industrialisation, it is natural for inequality to grow for a time, in a limited sense. The innovators who create the new wealth dole themselves a big chunk of the pie, until those on whom some of the riches trickle down rise up and demand a bigger share for themselves. From then on it’s a question of whether the state has sound policy for spreading the wealth — through fair elections, better schools, hospitals and infrastructure, minimum wage, and so forth.
The remarkable shift from autocracy to democracy during rapid wealth accumulation is nowhere more noteworthy than in Korea and Taiwan. The middle class grew right alongside the rapid rise of gross national product. Successfully industrialising states that have maintained democratic strides forward are always the result of sound policy.
America was for so long the measuring stick of democratic growth alongside wealth accumulation, that it has taken 40 years for people to realise that it’s been going the other way during this period.
Unenlightened leadership, blindness to the trend or blind determination to reinforce it, have contributed. It’s wearisome but necessary to note that Obama, as in so much, is the first president to try to do anything about it. Someone finally foresaw the dire straits such growing inequality was leading to — best illustrated by the Washington chaos caused by the excessively well-financed Tea Party obstructionists. You can’t have democracy without nourishing democracy.
*W Scott Thompson is emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, United States