If you spend as much time as I do on YouTube (and I honestly hope you do not), you may have stumbled upon a channel called Kurzgesagt. Kurzgesagt makes cute and humorous animated videos featuring its signature bird characters, usually explaining scientific phenomenon, and does so very well. But Kurzgesagt also attempts to explain issues of philosophy and political economy as well. Sometimes it does so very well — their video on drug addiction was a meaningful contribution to changing the harmful and ineffective way we look at drug use. But their most recent video, “A Selfish Argument for Making the World a Better Place,” departs from their normally empirical explanations and instead proffers a reductive synthesis of historical determinism and Whole Foods economics. So I want to break down the two major claims in the video to show how wrong they are and how dangerous an embrace of “egoistic altruism” could be.
The video begins with a slightly reductive but mostly accurate summation of world history prior to the Industrial Revolution: that wars were more frequent and scarcity was the driving force behind most inequality. Oddly the most common way this is demonstrated is left out of the video, which is the diminishing impact of famines on the world population. Perhaps the reason they left it out is because while famine deaths have decreased, the data reveals that the story is far less simple than “The Industrial Revolution solved it!”
Of course as you may see from the little notations, particularly the “Great Leap Forward” on the 1960’s column, there are explanations given for these outliers in the “Industrial Revolution savior” model. But the standard deviations are significant enough to warrant questions whether the simple correlation between the Industrial Revolution and decreased inequality is causation.
And if one looks at the breakdown of the two most developed regions in the world, Europe and the United States, it becomes clear that there may be explanations beyond capitalism-friendly innovation conquering inequality. First let’s look at wealth inequality: