Above a certain level, it is not the wealth of a society that determines how well it functions, it is how equally that wealth is shared.
In The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson demonstrate that health and social problems are worse in more unequal societies. Among other indexes, infant mortality, murder rates, teenage pregnancies, levels of obesity, depression, drug and alcohol addiction are all higher in countries where inequality is more pronounced. Details of their research can be found at The Equality Trust.
Poverty is relative. To some that may seem facile: if you can afford a Blackberry, then you’re not poor, they’ll argue. But the facts speak differently. Whether one thinks it makes sense or not, the experience of poverty only makes sense relative to the population in which you live and the effects of relative poverty are the same whether or not the poor have designer goods.
Whatever the reasons, the more unequal a society, the worse its problems.
While these problems disproportionately affect the poorest in society, their incidence is also greater in the rich in societies with the greatest gap between rich and poor. Inequality does not help anyone and this is without considering the impact of civil unrest and rioting.
Acceptance of the theories have tended to fit along party lines. Since they accord with broadly left thinking, clearly Conservatives are going to resist them. Last week while most politicians were asking questions about how the riots had occurred, the Chancellor George Osborne was busy furthering his campaign to cut the tax rate for the richest in society. Encouraging the right to pay higher wages to workers is unlikely to appeal. Labour, however, may also have to rethink the fact that they have become intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.
Most of us know from experience that trickle down wealth is a lie because it ignores the trickle down poverty caused by the ability of some to pay more that pushes up the price for all of food and shelter and transport.
A rising tide may lift all boats but most of us will never own one. We are cockle pickers trapped on the beach by rising waters.
The Spirit Level suggests that this may be bad news even for those with yachts.
When the prospect of asking affluent tax avoiders to pay their fair share is raised the defenders of inequality suggest that the rich might leave the country if they were expected to contribute like everyone else. But if whatever advantage they add as “wealth creators” is outweighed by the problems they create by heightening inequality, then maybe this might not be such a bad thing. Perhaps it is time to call their bluff?
With a broad consensus now that the moral failure of Britain’s elites cannot be separated from the immoral behaviour of looters, it seems a good time to ask whether these broken social values may not in part be linked to inequality and to start looking for ways of building a society in which all can prosper not just a few.