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Equality Is The Foundation of Society

Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level, writes about how income inequality has increased insecurities, reinforced class barriers and why greater equality will repair the social fabric of society.

The evidence that the obvious is true is now clear!  The effect of bigger differences in income and wealth in a society is to tighten the grip of class and status on us all.  Inequality is not just about how much stuff you have – regardless of what others have got.  It is about whether you have more or less than others, about where you are in the social hierarchy. 

Bigger income differences increase feelings of superiority and inferiority and strengthen our tendency to think some people are inherently better and worth more than others.  And in doing that they undermine our own feelings of self-worth and make us all more likely to treat external wealth as if it was a measure of people’s personal worth.

But of course as we judge each other more by status we inevitably worry more about how they judge us.  And as the insecurities intensify, we struggle more with lack of confidence and low self-esteem.  Increasing concern with appearances and the impression we create inevitably intensifies consumerism - as the advertisers know only too well.

The evidence shows just how powerful these forces are.  If you live in a more unequal society, you are more likely to spend money on status goods – showy cars or clothes with designer labels. As inequality increases, the class barriers go up – people become more likely to marry into their own social class and less likely to marry someone from a different one. 

At the same time, social mobility slows – people are more likely to remain in the same social class as their parents.  Opportunities for children become more unequal as parents pass their advantages and disadvantages on to their children and parental income becomes a more important determinant of their children’s lives.  The strong relationship between income inequality and social mobility shows that if a government really wanted to move towards more equal opportunities for children, it would reduce income differences among their parents and in society at large.

But it is not simply class barriers which increase.  Status insecurities make most social relationships seem more difficult and more anxiety provoking.  With increasing inequality people have less to do with each other and community life atrophies.  Indeed, some find social life so stressful that they avoid parties and social gatherings. 

The statistical evidence is unmistakable: status anxiety goes up and community life weakens.  And the less people are involved in community life, the less public spirited they are and the less willing to help others they become.  Only status competition and status insecurity increase as self-doubts gnaw away at us and we fear we are not good enough.

The damage inequality does goes to the heart of the real quality of life.  Studies of happiness and wellbeing have repeatedly proven the importance of good social relationships, of friendships and involvement in community life. 

The same is true of health.  Many studies have shown that friendship and good social relationships are highly protective of health.  People with closer social bonds tend to be healthier and live longer than people who are more isolated.  It’s a matter of whether or not you feel relaxed and at ease with other people, or whether social contact adds to the stress which takes its toll on our bodies and leads to more rapidly.

Greater equality is not only the foundation of a better society; it is also a necessary condition for dealing with the climate emergency – for reigning in consumerism, for developing a higher real quality of life without adding to the burden on the environment, and for developing the spirit of cooperation necessary to reform our way of life. 

As well as dealing with tax avoidance and tax havens, we must make tax rates progressive again and improve social security. But above all, we must reduce the inequalities in income before tax.  And that means moving towards systems of economic democracy – legislation for strong employee representation on company boards as well as incentives for the development of cooperative and employee owned businesses. 

The evaluations suggest that more democratic companies work better for everyone. They embed greater equality more deeply into the fabric of society.