At least since late 18th century, equality has been formally one of the social, political and economic objectives on the agenda of any society that has any claim to “civilisation”. This has, of course, not been without difficulty.
After all, those who are at the top of an unequal society don’t give up their wealth and privilege willingly and, unfortunately, sometimes even those not at the top don’t want change, as long as there are some below them. During a recession, a more equal society is often considered a luxury we can’t afford.
The excuses can vary from “human nature” to an “incentive to achieve more”, etc. These contentions, however, are not supported by research conducted over a number of decades. The evidence shows that even innovation is more prevalent in more equal societies. Research shows that in Japan, Sweden and Norway, where there is a smaller gap between rich and poor, the population is happier, healthier, and more successful than in the US, the UK, Portugal, and New Zealand.
Health and social problems are worse in more unequal countries and, interestingly, more economic growth will NOT lead to a happier, healthier, or more successful population. In fact, there is no relation between income per capita and social well-being in wealthy countries.
In the UK, the research found that if society were more equal, the population would be better off. For example, the evidence suggests that if they halved inequality in the UK:
- Murder rates would halve
- Mental illness would reduce by two thirds
- Obesity would halve
- Imprisonment would reduce by 80%
- Teen births would reduce by 80%
- Levels of trust would increase by 85%
Also, while the poorest would gain the most, it is not just poor people who do better. The evidence suggests everyone would benefit. These findings also hold true in the US as well as other developed nations.
People in more equal societies live longer, a smaller proportion of children die in infancy and self-rated health is better. They are also far less likely to experience mental illness (world mental health surveys by WHO).
In more equal societies, people are less likely to use illegal drugs (The World Drug Report 2007) and children do better at school (an international analysis published in Lancet, and an analysis of the 50 US states published in Social Science and Medicine).
Unequal societies are harsher and they imprison a higher proportion of their population. In more equal societies there is greater social mobility, obesity is less common, communities are more cohesive and people trust each other more.
Homicide rates are lower, children experience less violence and teenage motherhood is less common in more equal societies. UNICEF measures of child well-being are also better in more equal societies.
Improvements in health or well-being do not necessarily result from further economic growth. It is greater income equality that leads to a better quality of life. More equal societies spend a higher proportion their income on overseas aid and perform better on the Global Peace Index.
Inequality fuels status competition, individualism and consumerism. This makes it harder to gain public support for policies to reduce global warming. Income inequality can be reduced either by reducing the difference in pay before tax (like in Japan) or by redistribution through taxes and benefits (like in Sweden).
MONDRAGON Cooperative Corporation, a federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain is an example of what can be achieved. It is the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country.
At the end of 2009, it had a turnover of almost €15 billion and it was providing employment for more than 85,000 members working in 256 companies in four areas of activity: Finance, Industry, Retail and Knowledge. The MONDRAGON Co-operatives have a highly participatory model with solidarity as a core principle. The Co-operatives are owned by their worker-members and power is based on the principle of one person, one vote.
The current crisis can be an opportunity to redress the long standing problem of inequality in society. It remains to be seen, however, whether the new Government would grasp this opportunity or consider, once again, equality as a luxury we can’t afford. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, inequality is seen as unaffordable.
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