Written by: Ingvild Stensby Bakken
Since the end of the Second World War, the spread of peace through liberalism has been a prioritized foreign policy, especially in the United States. The notion that a liberal market economy, democracy and peace are interlinked with each other stands strong both in academia and amongst people in various states working to export peace. Based on a series of recent studies, I find reason to ask if the liberal peace is, and should be, under threat. This question needs to be asked as we can see that pure market economies with few institutions or mechanisms for reallocating wealth between its citizens have been experiencing some sort of protests or political upheavals the last years.
We can start with one of the most shocking events in 2017: the election of Donald Trump as the president of The United States of America. From a typical Norwegian social democratic perspective, it makes little sense to vote for a businessperson to make up for the unfairness in the system you live in, but it probably seemed as if he was the only option against the established elites. Big parts of the reason for people’s anger towards the elites in the United States lie in their lack of prospects for the future. Young post-graduate students now are the first generation in decades to earn less than their parents. Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer.
Having a stable middle-class are one of the ground pillars of stability in a democratic society. The middle class should be the largest group. Instead, we are now seeing a rise in the amount of poor people, not only in poor countries anymore, but also in middle- and high income countries. This is especially problematic considering the overall rise in standards of living since the Second World War and the ability we now have to see people around us, both in traditional and in social medias, who have so much more than we could ever dream of. The reason that this is concerning is that we compare ourselves to others. This is the concept of relative deprivation.
Some decades ago, it seemed like the American dream was still alive, but it is slowly dying as the average American becomes more dependent on food stamps and three different jobs to be able to support their family. In a liberal market economy, an invisible hand is supposed to guide the market in the right direction, and the trickle-down effect would make sure that everyone could benefit when someone is getting richer. A few examples can support this, such as Bill and Melinda Gates spending a lot of money on making vaccines available for people in poorer countries. However, several studies show that rich people who get richer, through tax cuts or similar, mostly save their money or use them to buy luxury goods that do not support the economy in their country. Mostly, the luxury goods are manufactured by people who do not get a fair share of what the product is sold for.
The social comparison sickness
Inequality is becoming an increasing problem. Amongst others, Tony Atkinson and Thomas Piketty have provided us with studies to confirm this. Additionally, Oxfam recently presented numbers that show how the one percent richest in the world pulled in 82 percent of the wealth created last year, while the poorest half of the world got nothing. As mentioned earlier, we compare ourselves to each other. Therefore, when people around us get richer, our standards for how much we perceive as “enough” increases. It is not so important how we actually fare, it is more important how we fare compared to others. Even though we are not actually poor, we behave as if we were.
Keith Payne refers to this phenomenon as the “social comparison sickness”. When people feel they are falling behind, they eat more unhealthy food, smoke more, use more drugs and try to catch up by gambling or criminal activities. If somebody is achieving only a little bit better than us, we feel like we can catch up, and it works as an incentive to strengthen our effort, but if the gap becomes too big, the feeling of falling behind overshadows everything. This becomes a vicious circle where unrest and anger will be on a constant rise, and in the end, we will see the effect in increasing instability and turmoil around the world.
A change of course towards social democratic peace
Nils Petter Gleditsch, a Norwegian researcher in peace and international politics, proposes in his book Towards a More Peaceful World? an alternative understanding of how peace and democracy can be sustained in a stable way, namely a theory on social democratic peace. Important characteristics in a social democracy are democracy and market economy combined with a strong political management. The state takes on responsibility for its inhabitants through welfare and security nets for those at risk of falling behind. This leads to a general trust in institutions and trust in each other. Furthermore, we can see a high level of organizational density in social democratic countries, an aspect that is crucial for a democratic society where people are active participants and feel that their needs are being both heard and met. As we can see in today’s international society, the ideal of equality is being challenged. I would be much more optimistic for the future if we could start working for a stable democratic peace based on low social differences instead of creating societies solely based on survival of the fittest or most privileged.
Spreading the liberal economic peace with hopes of the invisible hand guiding the market and wealth trickling down, has led to social disparities being on a rise, and likewise a rise in discontent and unrest. My conclusion is, yes, liberal peace is under threat. It is under threat from itself. If the liberal peace receipt does not include mechanisms and institutions for re-distributing wealth anytime soon, it is going to lead to a self-inflicted death caused by uprisings in one way or another.
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