Let them eat cake, again

Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the first series of six books forming his autobiography “Confessions” in 1765, published in 1782. In the sixth book, he recounted a time when he was poor and hungry.

He was drinking stolen wine and wishing he had some bread to go with it. In the 18th century, bread was the major staple of French life, consuming half of the average person’s income to acquire.

Realizing that he was too finely dressed to go into a regular bakery, he recalled the words of an unnamed “great princess” who had purportedly said that if there was no bread, the poor should eat brioche, a richer, sweeter baked good.

When Marie Antoinette incurred the ire of the French revolutionaries in 1789, this quote was conveniently attributed to her, because it was felt that her actions as queen demonstrated the obliviousness of the privileged to the plight of those in poverty. The connection stuck.

But the idea of the wealthy and powerful few turning away from the poor multitude with indifference is much older than the quote about cake.

Zhu Muzhi, president of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, asserts that Rousseau's version is an alteration of a much older anecdote: "An ancient Chinese emperor who, being told that his subjects didn't have enough rice to eat, replied, 'Why don't they eat meat?'” The phrase was attributed to Emperor Hui, second emperor of the Jin dynasty, in the third century A.D.

The history of humans is consistently one of economic disparity between the few and the many. What is the source of this apparently inevitable stratification of wealth?

Bruce Charlton is a medical doctor and lecturer at Newcastle University in the U.K. A professor of psychology, he has written on the subject of evolutionary psychology. This field looks at the full history of humans and how our behavioral development is evidenced in our current activities. Going back a quarter million years, the vast majority of human experience was spent in small bands of hunter-gatherers. Charlton summarizes his view in a paper on inequality:

“It is suggested that ‘the injustice of inequality’ has a basis in social instincts that evolved to promote cooperation in small-scale, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies with immediate-return economies. Modern Homo sapiens has been designed by natural selection to live in such societies, and has ‘counterdominance’ instincts that are gratified by equal sharing of resources and an equal distribution of resources.

“However, there are also phylogenetically older ‘dominance’ social instincts (e.g., status-seeking, nepotism and mutual reciprocity) deriving from pre-hominid ancestors, and these tend to create inequality under ‘modern’ conditions of economic surplus. Therefore, human instincts and gratifications are intrinsically in conflict under contemporary conditions.”

In other words, people have two conflicting behavioral impulses built into our DNA: We want to get ahead, and we don’t want others to get too much farther ahead than we do. These impulses play out in our daily lives, in our politics and in our economics.

As the old saying went, we want to keep up with the Joneses, and feel resentful or envious when the neighbors have a bigger house, a better car or more glamorous vacations than we do. But we also complain when we’re asked to pay higher taxes, so people who have much less than we do can receive equalizing subsidies.

Holding two conflicting thoughts in one’s mind at the same time is known as cognitive dissonance, and it causes mental discomfort. If Charlton and his colleagues are correct, people are in constant internal anguish, with their urge for material superiority battling with their desire to remain part of the tribe.

It is no wonder, therefore, that our political arena demonstrates the same cognitive dissonance. When politicians can, in one moment, espouse support for raising up the middle class and in another accept the influence and campaign money from the wealthiest of us, it provides a visible example of our collective psychological conflict.

When a hard-working, self-made billionaire gives great sums to charities, it is from the part of our evolutionary psychology that says “share the wealth” among those less fortunate.

When that same individual argues against a progressive income tax that takes a larger share of his wealth away each year, it is driven by that part of our evolutionary psychology that says “I want to have more than others.”

If we can learn anything from the history of this enduring internal conflict of thought, it is that when the disparity becomes too great, the many rise up against the few. And it’s not the absolute disparity that matters.

Our current average quality of life is far beyond that of Marie Antoinette’s, if you consider health care, diet, ability to travel comfortably over long distances quickly, access to education and information, entertainments and life span.

And when the disparity is not only great in relativity but also in actuality, such as in large parts of Africa and the Middle East, the discontent rises to violent levels.

When our politics acknowledge our evolutionary psychology, we may become conscious enough to create peace between our ears, and thus between ourselves.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at

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