From Understanding Society authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, income inequalities as such are a source of a variety of social problems in any society. They find that there is a strong negative relationship between income inequalities and social well-being, and that the relationship is causal. Income inequality erodes health and social well-being.
Further, they maintain that these relationships persist in affluent societies.
Their Index of Health and Social Problems comprises 10 equally weighted factors: level of trust, mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility.
The resulting scatter plot lines the countries up impressively:
The US is almost off the scale at the bad end, with Japan at the good end. Australia and New Zealand are at the wrong end of the middle cluster.
While the author of the post is not convinced, their thesis sounds good to me. But then it fits with my values and I’m not competent to unpick the sociology.
Nevertheless I was encouraged to find support in this New York Times article. The contention is that the thirst for fairness runs deep:
Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match. As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.
According to David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York,
“Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust.”
He thinks that the ability to throw stones at an alpha male at a distance may have been a critical adaptation in our evolution.
Dr Katarina Gospic of the Karolinska Institute’s Osher Center in Stockholm and her colleagues undertook an experiment which she says
indicates that the act of treating people fairly and implementing justice in society has evolutionary roots,“ Dr. Gospic said. “It increases our survival.”
Wilson thinks that equality within groups allowed us to dominate the earth. But equality is not absolute. For example, there is a sense of justice in the rewards that follow effort. Cross cultural studies indicate that there were gradients of wealth and power in traditional societies. A recent study of five such societies “found the average degree of income inequality to be roughly half that seen in the United States, and close to the wealth distribution of Denmark.”
Interestingly, another recent study found that when Americans were given the chance to construct their version of the optimal wealth gradient for America, both Republicans and Democrats came up with a chart that looked like Sweden’s.
They do seem to be on the wrong path, then.