The Causes of Poverty (25): The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect – a concept invented by sociologist Robert K. Merton – is based on the following extract of the Gospel of Matthew:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

This statement is intuitively convincing. Those who already have economic resources can use these to acquire even more of them, often if not by definition at the expense of those who don’t have them. It’s easy to see how wealthy people have better information to use their wealth in such a way that they can increase it. How they know the right people, how they can use the education system to their advantage (and to the advantage of their offspring), how they can use the political system to their advantage etc. Conversely, poor people are often stuck in a poverty trap: their poverty makes them sick, and their sickness even more poor; their poverty makes it hard to access education, and their lack of education makes them more poor etc.

You can see at once how this is relevant to the issue of human rights. While income or wealth inequality as such isn’t a human rights violation, it does have implications for human rights. And poverty is a human rights violation. But the Matthew Effect can be observed in other human rights as well. Take for instance the wiretapping that is used in the war on terror. Initially, wiretapping is targeted towards individuals who are suspected of plotting an attack. However, it seems inevitable that those who are authorized to use wiretapping expand the field of their authority. Instead of targeted wiretapping, they go on fishing expeditions: throwing out the nets as wide as possible and see which fishes end up in it. They start to use data-mining, for instance, checking private information of entire populations in order to filter out suspect individuals.

Another example of the Matthew Effect in human rights can be found in hate speech laws. The laws may initially impose limits on the freedom of speech that crack down on cases of hate speech that may cause violence and riots. However, once certain exceptions on the freedom of speech are legal and legitimate, the boundaries may move towards more restrictions. Maybe speech that doesn’t pose an imminent threat of violence but perhaps a longterm threat to the stability of a multicultural society – such as derogatory speech, or blasphemous speech – should also be prohibited. And then you may find yourself on a slippery slope.

I can also mention what I called “searchlight human rights violations” (see this previous post): for example, a certain level of sexual violence against women in a particular society, can teach young men a certain culture, mentality and value system that automatically leads to a wider use of violence.

However, I don’t believe things are as simple as this. While the Matthew Effect is certainly a force that is driving human rights violations, I don’t think there is anything inevitable or mechanical about it. There are other forces at play as well, and some of them go in the other direction. If that wouldn’t be the case, then the Matthew Effect would have landed us in a place where respect for human rights is non-existent, and would have done so a long time ago.

Regarding the particular case of wealth inequality, a simple application of the Matthew Effect would require a vision of the world with limited resources. And although some – important – resources are indeed limited, others – equally important ones – are not. It’s not because one person receives a good education, that another one must receive less education. And when one person accumulates riches, this can benefit others (his or her employees for example).

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One thought on “The Causes of Poverty (25): The Matthew Effect

  1. Great insight. I see the contribution and the limitations of the Matthew Effect over human rights issues and would love to see more about alternatives to it in the real world.

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