What Inequality Does

Marlyn Glen

11 February 2014

In the 1980s, the UK was afflicted by Thatcherism, and its decade of the shrunken state, low taxation for the rich, cuts in public expenditure, privatisation, individualism replacing collectivism, an iron grip on trade union rights, and a new era of so-called “freedom “.

Government policies ensured that inequality rose sharply.

Wilkinson and Pickett, the authors of the influential book The Spirit Level have reported one study which found that “ in particular, self-enhancement or self-aggrandizement — the tendency to present an inflated view of oneself — occurred much more frequently in more unequal societies.”

In the same vein, in the US , these changes in personal behaviour were picked up by the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory”, a social research model devised in the US in the 1980s.

Wilkinson and Pickett described how, “ In the United States, research psychologists have shown that narcissism rates, as measured by a standard academic tool known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, rose rapidly from the later 1980s, which would appear to track the increases in inequality. “

The greater inequalities resulted from the policies of Reaganism, the American cousin of Thatcherism.

In their own work in the “Spirit Level” , the two researchers took the broad perspective of comparing how different degrees of inequality in income affected different countries.

The results were clear-cut : in the countries studied, at every level of income, the more unequal the country, the greater the prospects of poorer health, greater crime , lower life expectancy, inferior education , and less social mobility.

In the countries with higher degrees of equality, the picture was reversed with their societies benefiting from better health, education and opportunities at every level of income.

They quote research from the 1990s in several hundred urban areas of the US, showing that a reduction in income inequality to the lowest level in these areas would save as many lives as would be saved by ending heart disease.

As many lives would be protected as the number of deaths from lung cancer, diabetes, car crashes , suicides and murders put together.

Inequality has been repeatedly shown to be at the root of what affects us as members of society.

Will Hutton of the Work Foundation wrote in the “Observer” last month of its pervasive effects, listing a few of them as  :

The growth of the welfare bill;

the increasing need for credit;

the brittle banking system; the slump in productivity;

the disdain towards trade unions seeking to represent those at work;

the well-paid at the top who required financial incentives to work while the dispirited at the bottom required wage cuts to act as incentives to work ;

tax cuts for the rich, but cuts in public services for the rest ;

the culture of bonuses even for failure for those in the highest ranks of business while the poor in work live in the shadow of the Payday Loan and foodbanks.

He writes : “  The indifference to the growing gap between rich and poor, in all its multiple dimensions, is the first order category mistake of our times.

"No lasting solution to the socioeconomic crisis through which we are living is possible without addressing it.”

Spirit level authors Wilkinson and Pickett outline the personal and social consequences of inequality.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we become less nice people in more unequal societies.

“But we are less nice and less happy : Greater inequality redoubles status anxiety, damaging our mental health and distorting our personalities — wherever we are on the social spectrum.”

Inequality is a failure of the market , not of the individuals it damages.

As an instrument of government policy inequality has had its day for, as the famous economist J Kenneth Galbraith once reflected,

"The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character-building values of the privation of the poor."



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