Equality – why does it matter?

In a famous exchange in the UK House of Commons in 1990, Margaret Thatcher’s critics pointed out that, whatever her achievements in office, it was undeniable that the gap between rich and poor had increased under her watch. Thatcher replied that what mattered was that everyone was better off now. Her critics, she said, didn’t really care about improving the lot of the poor, only – due to their ideological prejudice – about reducing the gap between rich and poor. The same logic can be found in the work of the late American philosopher John Rawls, who wrote in his A Theory of Justice (1971) that inequality was not good in itself, but could be accepted if making the rich richer made the poorest better off. The approach was further supported by New Labour figures such as Peter Mandelson, who famously said that he felt “intensely relaxed” about the rich amassing huge fortunes, so long as they paid their taxes. It all seems very reasonable: surely what’s important is to raise the prosperity of all, including those at the bottom, not enviously bringing the richest down. I will call this the “rising tide” argument (after the popular proverb “a rising tide lifts all boats”). To reject this argument looks like ideological purity for its own sake. However I believe the sceptics are right: inequality is bad in itself, regardless of whether it raises the material prosperity of those at the bottom.

Before we see what exactly is wrong with the rising tide argument, it should be said that the claim that allowing the richest to get even richer will raise the prosperity of the poorest is just empirically false. We know that over the last forty years, in the UK, where the “rising tide lifts all boats” argument has been official Government policy for four decades, the richest have become yet richer, the incomes and wealth of the majority have stagnated, with more than a fifth of the population on incomes below the poverty line. So the argument starts to look more and more like special pleading, a line pushed by political parties – including New Labour under Tony Blair – which are increasingly being funded by hedge-fund managers and corporate donors.

Putting aside this practical worry, and to see what’s wrong with inequality in itself, let’s assume for the sake of argument that making the rich yet richer did actually raise the income and wealth of the poor. Would that then make inequality acceptable? No – and here we get straight to the heart of what is wrong with inequality. It’s usually thought that inequality is bad for two reasons: because it’s unfair that some enjoy material wealth even though they didn’t deserve it more than others, and because it produces poverty – which it often does. The corollary of these arguments however is that if we can have the inequality without the poverty and make everyone prosperous (the aspiration of right-wing politicians) then the problem simply disappears. But it doesn’t: there are two fundamental reasons why inequality is wrong regardless of whether it creates poverty or prosperity. The first is that inequality of wealth and income produces other, and even more significant kinds of inequality, namely equality of power and equality of social status. The second is that inequality creates a divided society, and potentially leads to social conflict.

Firstly, the idea that inequality of wealth produces other, more important inequalities. It is no secret that wealthy individuals and corporations spend millions funding political parties and candidates in many countries, thus ensuring greater influence over politics. This fact should constitute a scandal in a democracy, but it’s seen as just the way we do things here. And it’s not only parties and candidates that are funded, but newspapers and TV stations and think tanks, all the organisations which shape the ruling ideas of a society. We should call a spade a spade, and call this daylight corruption. You and I – assuming you are not a hedge-fund manager or film star – do not have comparable power to influence politics. Obviously, wealthy individuals and corporations would soon turn off the cash taps if any party or media outlet or think tank threatened their comfortable position, by for example increasing individual or corporate taxes, introducing new social or environmental legislation, or giving trade unions greater power. Talking of trade unions, it might be countered that they too fund parties, as can wealthy individuals who happen to prefer a more equal society. That is true, but the money they donate to parties is dwarfed by the contributions from hedge funds and wealthy donors. It’s fair to conclude that political inequality does not exist, and that politics is rigged in a way which favours the already-advantaged.

The second kind of inequality that is produced by unequal wealth or income is inequality of esteem – or inequality of social power. At one time or another, almost everyone has experienced condescension, what it is like to be looked down upon, and it is not a pleasant experience. For the least well-off it’s a permanent condition: those who are unemployed or in low-paid work are portrayed as inferior, lazy, and irresponsible. Once it is internalised and becomes part of one’s self-image, this belief can have devastating effects on self-esteem and on the confidence that is necessary for taking on any significant challenge, or just for coping with difficult life events. These are what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb called the “hidden injuries of class”. On the other hand the rich convince us that they possess some special and rare qualities which enabled them to get where they are, or else that they have worked exceptionally hard for their wealth. Internalising this belief, the already-privileged get a confidence boost as a result, enabling them to take on greater challenges and not be put off by failure, and so inequality perpetuates itself. Of course, there are “rags to riches” stories of individuals who had very few privileges, but used their innate talent and hard work to get where they are. But social mobility statistics show that they are the exception that proves the rule.

The second reason that making the rich richer even if it benefited the poor would not be desirable is that inequality produces a divided society. When inequality is produced, the result is social division: people who are living in different neighbourhoods, socialising with different people, buying different products and services, spending their free time in different ways, holidaying in different places, and the greater the inequality the greater the division. The consequence is opulent gated communities on one side, and rundown housing estates and rural desperation on the other. Even childrens’ playgrounds get segregated. Different lives imply different interests, and the social division creates conflict, in politics, and on the ground. The common good is fractured.

Let’s look very briefly at some other common justifications for inequality:

  • “Social mobility should be the goal – so long as you have social mobility, then everyone has a chance of rising socially.” No! Even if you have perfect social mobility – and we are far from it – then persisting inequality will mean that social division and potential conflict persist.
  • “If you pay the top people less they will leave/you can’t attract talent” Nonsense! It is not astronomical pay that motivates most people but interesting and meaningful work and comradeship, as explained in this fantastic animation from the RSA. Today’s top footballers are paid huge sums but Bobby Moore led the England team to World Cup victory in 1966 on a plumber’s pay.
  • “High pay rewards hard work.” Of course harder work and longer hours should be rewarded with higher pay. But if this were true then teachers would be paid as much as bankers, nurses as much as CEOs!

I have been focusing economic inequality, partly for reasons of space, but what about other forms of inequality, affecting gender, sexual orientation and identity, and ethnic identity for example? For those who suffer from them, they are just as damaging as economic inequality, and in fact there is a lot of overlap – for example women and ethnic minorities tend to be disadvantaged economically relative to other groups. Intellectually, the battle has been won here: very few people want to argue openly against these other forms of equality these days, and this itself is a very positive thing. This does not mean however that these forms of inequality have disappeared, and in many insidious ways they bring about the same kinds of social and political inequality that have been discussed above. To foster equality across the board more subtle arguments need to be bought to bear, about why these forms of inequality persist. One of these is bringing about a greater awareness of privilege resulting from class and education, and how they give some an unfair head start, something that is increasingly being done by activist and campaigning groups, but needs to be spread to the wider society.

So, even if it did raise the level of the poorest – which it invariably doesn’t – inequality is bad for society. It creates inequalities in power and status which make a mockery of the idea that we live in a democracy or a society of equals. It is vital that this fact is explained and the arguments which support it shared widely, if we are to undermine the arguments for inequality that are trotted out daily by politicians and a biased media.

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