This morning I gave my 68th "Thought for the Week" on BBC Radio Manchester.
I used it to share something I have wanted to write about for well over a decade, but always kept prioritising other writings.
It is a paradox that I identified in 2008. The inequality of pre-modern societies was deeply unfair, but it also made human progress possible.
Since the pandemic started, I have pre-recorded the "Thought for the Week" and sent it to the BBC in advance. BBC Radio Manchester has now reopened to visiting contributors, but my diary today required me to co-lead a visit to Leeds by the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. Consequently it was another remote appearance.
Accordingly you can hear my recording below.
In 2008, I visited Bordeaux in South-West France. Bordeaux has a wonderful Gothic Cathedral, which took over 150 years to build. While admiring the Cathedral, I realised something.
When it was built, almost everyone in France was a very poor peasant farmer. The exception was a thin veneer at the top of society, the aristocrats and their hangers on. The Cathedral exists only because that small group of people had the wealth and know-how to build it.
If you had made Medieval French society completely equal, everybody would still have been very poor, but the Cathedral would never exist.
That applies to every great building from the past.
They exist because of past inequality.
But past inequality is even more important than that.
The reason Britons in 2022 are not poor peasant farmers is that we had the industrial revolution. That was made possible by the slow development over centuries of science and technology. The people who created science and technology were all part of that thin veneer at the top of society.
The ancient Greek, Euclid, could spend his life developing geometry, because he didn’t need to work for a living. If Greek society had been completely equal, there would have been no mathematicians, because everyone would have been a subsistence farmer.
Everything of value from before the industrial revolution owes its existence to past inequality. Without past inequality, all of us living today would be desperately poor.
It is past inequality that made our wealthy, modern, world possible.