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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Jonas’s realizations about the constraints of this rigidly organized life come gradually, but they are nearly all foreshadowed very early in a single symbol loaded with deep economic resonance. One day, Jonas takes an apple out of the common snack basket and, instead of eating it, tosses it around with his friend Asher. Later on, the voice of God—the announcer whose task it is to subtly shame good behavior into community members—reminds him that “snacks are to be eaten, not hoarded.”

The reason that Jonas took the apple home instead of using the resource for its intended purpose—why he engaged in the cardinal sin of a planned economy, in other words, where there is exactly enough for everyone, if everyone is responsible—was because it changed color when he was tossing it in the air. Or, rather, it went from black and white, like everything in the community, to having a color that Jonas cannot yet name. So Jonas takes it home to investigate it further, but is unable to get it to perform the trick again.

He holds this incident back from his family, who usually engage in a mandated share time right before dinner that starts charmingly enough but becomes increasingly creepy over the course of the novel, as our understanding of the ubiquitous surveillance the community employs to keep their Marxist utopia running increases. Jonas will come to spend a lot of time not telling his family the things that are happening to him as he trains to receive the memories of the community, in all of their Technicolor horror.

There is want and suffering in these memories, even violence. But there is also, well, color. When she was interviewed about the movie release, Lowry articulated the trade-off when asked about the devolution of the egalitarian utopia into dystopia: “People do things that turn out badly, often for the most benevolent of reasons. But this community in The Giver lost everything as a result—literature and music and art and all of that.”

The apple, the quintessential Christian symbol of the loss of paradise and automatic, divine plenty, is highly loaded in the context of the book. It represents the transition from a life that is essentially fair and equal for all, both in expectations and outcomes, to one that is colorful and uncertain. And it’s not just that the community lacks literature and music and art and all of that: One of the other resources that ends up in short supply when relationships are engineered for community standards is a surplus of compassion. [More spoilers:] Jonas ultimately runs away because he discovers that the community’s solution for babies who might fail to thrive is lethal injection. Egalitarianism here is a myth literally enforced by the blood of infants. (This part of the book is perhaps less subtle than earlier portions.)

As for “blood” in the metaphorical sense of the familial relations that the community attempts to erase to ensure perfect equality, they have their own strange way of outing. Jonas, The Giver himself, and the baby that Jonas rescues from “release” all have the same pale eyes, unique in the population. Lily suggests that they might have the same “birthmother,” which is the Atwoodian way that reproduction is arranged here. The romantic implication is that all of the social engineering in the world will not erase this ambiguous patrimony, from grandfather to son to grandson.

The Giver inspired many subsequent kid lit dystopias. It’s possible to trace the influence of its interest in aesthetics and inequality in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, for example, where 16-year-olds receive mandated governmental plastic surgery to correct any flaws that do not precisely conform to their society’s definition of beauty—which turns out to involve the blandness of symmetry, a kind of perfection in mediocrity. Philip Gough, who wrote his dissertation on the series, points out that the lack of an alternative renders the concept of beauty meaningless.

While the economic reason for all of this facial engineering is never really explicitly revealed, the fact that all of the citizens of dystopian Seattle receive a second surgery right before they get jobs may point to the desire to eliminate another source of potential inequality: our tendency to favor the beautiful over the ugly in employment relations.

The argument, then, is that perfect equality engineers a certain trade: guaranteed equal outcomes entail the forfeiting of art, music, literature, spontaneity, passion, even color itself. Trading anxiety about the future (who you will marry, who your friends will be, what you will do) for certainty about it cuts short the thrills and excitement—we might say the plot—of youth and exploration, which is why this trade seems of such particular interest to dystopian young adult writers. Likewise, obtaining a hard-won independence from family ties seems less impressive if the family was engineered for you to achieve the desired result by a computer algorithm in the first place.

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It is Lauren Oliver’s bestselling Delirium trilogy that takes this trade-off to its final and revealing logical extreme. It does this not by trying to eliminate inequality directly, but by taking out “passion” itself. In an echo of the sci-fi element of the Westerfeld series, 18-year-olds undergo an operation. The effect of this operation is to remove their capacity to love, which is declared a dangerous disease, delirium nervosa, in need of eradication (“The most dangerous diseases are those that make us think we are well”).

A number of surprising consequences follow from this decision, including the occasional parent-child killing, the failure for a mother or father “to bond normally, dutifully and responsibly” with a child. All families must be engineered, of course, and spouses assigned after a personality inventory where teenagers of similar rankings are allowed to choose from among four or so pre-selected candidates, as assortative mating takes on new meaning. Jobs and educational tracks, needless to say, are assigned.

But the truly astonishing thing about this world where love is a mental disease and passion a dirty word is that nobody can rouse themselves to do much of anything. Ordinary decisions are difficult, so commerce, as undertaken by people who wish to sell their labor for the things that they want, is slight. There’s some economic inequality, but the entirety of Portland, Maine, seems to be in a slow state of crumbling to the ground. Books and literature don’t really exist: Nobody would read them, even if they weren’t banned for all of those pesky themes of delirium nervosa. One longs for somebody to express a desire for one of those accoutrements of middle class life that are so suspect and eminently mockable in a Jonathan Franzen novel, just to bring a little life and trade to this gray—if not literally colorless—world.

Commerce and trade, it turns out, are just as dependent on the passions as the passions are dependent on commerce and trade in The Giver. The true nightmare of a dystopian world is that all of these things are interconnected, and that by losing one or the other, by engineering it away socially or medically, nightmarish unintended consequences will ensue.