What Is the Price of Perfect Equality?

Some of the best analyses lie not in the field of economics, but in books like The Giver—dystopian tales sitting on shelves marked Young Adult.
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Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges in The Giver (The Weinstein Company)

The world is an increasingly unequal and unfair place, economists tell us. Every year, it becomes a little harder to picture what equal opportunity and egalitarianism even look like. As the rich attract capital like Jupiter attracts space debris and the poor fail to make any substantial gains, the gap between them comes to seem to us less surmountable, more of a force of nature than something for which we can even imagine a reasonable counterfactual.

Fortunately, we have literature to help us out with that.

Specifically, we have young adult literature, and its fascination with the way that the world is made, unmade, and remade. 

If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s and were of a bookish turn, you either read The Giver or had it read to you, despite the numerous times that moral hawks tried to keep it out of your hands. (Naturally, this only made it more attractive.) The book, and numerous others that followed it, imagined worlds where economic conditions dictate the facts of human life, as of course they have a tendency to do.

* * *

In The Giver, society has "solved" inequality by dramatically reducing personal property and having the state distribute what's left. (This is not the sort of solution that might be recommended by a moderate market skeptic, like Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s author Thomas Piketty. His proposal—raising the income tax or making it more progressive—wouldn’t make for the most exciting subject, especially for young-adult page turners.) Such a solution like The Giver's has a stellar literary pedigree: It harkens back to thinkers like Thomas More, who in 1516 invented the egalitarian no-place ("utopia"), and to the socialist philosophers of the 19th century, especially Friedrich Engels.

Engels saw the institutions of family and private property as deeply entwined. Part of Engels’ objection to the institution of the family was that it involved a “progressive narrowing of the circle, originally embracing the whole tribe, within which the two sexes have a common conjugal relation.” Marxism’s benevolent tendencies are swallowed up by concern and preference for one’s immediate family, which becomes the unit of basic inequality.

Like Engels and Marx, Piketty and his contemporaries worry about “patrimonial capitalism,” or the tendency for certain families to only become richer, because the rate of return on capital exceeds the ordinary rate of growth. Have more capital, get more growth, have more capital, get more growth, and so on.

But there’s another kind of patrimony, as everyone who has ever ended up doing the same thing as her parents knows. There is a real danger that inequality is not just related to literal capital accumulation, but to equality of opportunity and the accumulation of cultural capital. This might include things like what kind of education your family can afford to give you, but also could be as simple as what you see in front of you every day and the way that it either expands or limits your opportunities, your very knowledge of to what you can reasonably aspire.

It isn’t hard to see how this ends up a popular theme in young adult dystopias, a genre that is about going into the wide world and figuring out what you might do in it, of separation and distance from the old and familiar. Families are a problem held in common by young adult novels and Marxist economics, which is why it is common to the point of cliché to kill off the parents at the beginning of bildungsromans. (Or, spoiler alert, in the case of that compendium of all YA dystopic clichés, Divergent, at the end of the first novel.)

So we often find unusual family structures in utopias gone wrong, apparently meant to deal with the natural inequalities that families reproduce. The Giver, as the oldest and in some ways the best example of this, serves as model for many of the dystopias that followed its publication. Its economics are very much sotto voce, but the ways in which they dictate life in the creatively-named “community” to which Jonas and his family belong aren’t hard to trace, once you start looking for them.

Consider: Jonas isn’t his parents’ biological child. Neither is his sister Lily, otherwise known as Newchild Twenty-Three, acquired at the age of one—as all children in the community are—through a random process of assignment to strictly-regulated family units. This is only the beginning of the ways in which central planning eliminates any natural advantages or disadvantages that might accrue to children born of certain families. They (heartbreakingly) receive and eventually give up “comfort objects” at a special ceremony meant to mark the passage of each year, which are some of the only possessions that they are ever allowed to have. It’s the same way with bikes, the community’s eco-friendly mode of transportation, although Jonas admits that most older siblings do break the rules a bit to teach their younger ones how to ride before they turn nine. This expression of family investment or preference is apparently all that is tolerated.

The employment system of the community presents, at least at first, as exactly the sort of fair and eminently reasonable plan that you yourself would design, were you God. Instead of families pushing their children onto uncertain educational and employment tracks at the age of four, Jonas and his companions perform community service work and go to the same schools until they reach the age of 12, at which point a beneficent and off-stage council of elders determines which form of employment would be most suitable based on what the children have shown an aptitude for in their volunteer work. Jonas’s father says that it is only after his assignment that his parents confessed that they expected the outcome all along, suggesting that they were not even allowed to talk to him about it.

Other aspects of family life are similarly scripted for fair economic outcomes. Spouses are chosen by the same committee. The pairing of Jonas’ parents—high status mother, relatively low status father—suggests that further egalitarian social engineering is occurring combinatorically, with a view to the whole arrangement of the community. 

And indeed, it must be working, for there is little want or apparent suffering here. Children are cared for in special centers until families can be found for them. The elderly likewise, until they are “released.” Everything is practical, sensible, eminently gentle from an economic perspective.

* * *

It’s a tribute to Lois Lowry’s great skill and delicacy that the exact moment when all of this solid complacency and good order fades into a dystopian nightmare isn’t exactly clear. Sure, our first glimpse of Jonas is of our eleven-year-old protagonist trying to come up with the correct word to describe his mental state, which turns out to be “apprehensive.” But compare to The Hunger Games: By the end of the first paragraph, we have learned that something called “the reaping” is about to occur later that day. “Apprehensive” seems not quite to cover it.

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Presented by

Shannon Chamberlain

Shannon Chamberlain is doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written for Slate and Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. 

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