Is social inequality addictive?

We now know that inequality is bad for us. At the national level, the effect of living in an equitable country as compared to an unequal rich country is as great, in terms of the increase in overall life expectancy that comes with greater equality, as if everyone had given up smoking cigarettes. However, just because we know something is bad for us does not mean that we stop doing it.

Many people did not stop smoking even after the evidence that smoking kills became crystal clear. Is there something about inequality that is similarly addictive? People in more equitable countries do not choose to take up greater inequality, why would they? But people, especially people in power in the most unequal of countries in the rich world lead by the United States and United Kingdom, don’t appear to see their great levels of inequality as particularly problematic, despite the evidence.

The evidence that inequality is bad for us may be becoming ever more convincing but have some of us been weaned on seeing inequalities as good, as evidence of successful competition, as the unavoidable result of a survival of the fittest? Are the mental habits that perpetuate inequality much harder to kick in some places and times than others? Does living in a nation that has become adjusted to high levels of unfairness make inequalities appear more acceptable; inequalities which would not be accepted now elsewhere?

Why don’t the four most unequal countries of the rich world (the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal and Singapore) express any sustained wish to have their levels of social inequality reduce, say to the average levels enjoyed by the rest of the world’s richest twenty five countries – all of which are much more equitable than these four? In the rest of the rich world people live longer, consume and pollute less, appear happier when surveyed, experience less crime, trust each other more, stay together more often in families, live longer and healthier lives, invent more things, recycle more, eat less meat, have more stable economies, take fewer drugs, drink less and so on. Even the trains run on time more often!

People in the most unequal of affluent countries are not especially stupid, although we do worse at school on average than do children of the other 21 rich nations. Why don’t we notice? Why don’t we accept that greater equality brought about by curtailing the excesses at the top would help us all? A good place to start trying to answer this question, and where I started in writing: ‘Injustice: Why social inequality persists‘, is with the answers people living in these most unequal countries themselves give when they are asked what is most wrong.

Daniel Dorling, author of Injustice: Why social inequality persists

Would you like to win a copy of Daniel Dorling’s Injustice: Why social inequality persists? Simply post a relevant comment to either the ‘The rise and rise of social inequality’ or the ‘Is social inequality addictive’ entry and we will enter you into a prize draw to win copy of the book, we only have one to give away so join the debate now! Closing date 30th April 2010.

3 Responses to “Is social inequality addictive?”

  1. 1 Richard Clifford April 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    This is great work and an enticing set of questions. Specifically re the UK the last 30 years have increased inequality significantly. The gains in material wealth for ordinary people in no way compensate for the withdrawal of public wealth. A society that has become a PLC is a pale shadow of what it should be.

    Please, someone, give Daniel Dorling a TV series to bring this material to a wider audience.

  2. 2 Peter Hagerty April 26, 2010 at 2:58 am

    Recently I was at a Philosophy discussion on ‘Ideology’, the general drift was ‘Why can’t people see through the prevailing capitalist ideology?’ When I suggested that the the average reading age in this country (11.5 years – Guardian Newspapers) may well prevent them reading alternative viewpoints and consequently the sub literate advertising medium was the only voice to be heard, I was met with a stunned philosophical silence. Clearly the richest sectors of the population have a reading age above average, but equally lack an alternate viewpoint. This is ironic given the proponderance of religious belief and yet most religious believers appear to reject the teachings of their founder preferring instead materialism and ‘greed’.

    Given this fundamental contradiction there is little hope that an enlightened philosophy, religious or otherwise, will change the cultural zeitgeist. The deeper motivation may well have a more Darwinian explanation, driven by what I sadly conclude is not wealth per se, but the power the advantage of wealth brings to better lever their situation in a competitive society which is promoted by the ‘hidden persuaders’ as a world hostile to their own survival.

  3. 3 Maria Masuda November 8, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Can I have your babies? Seriously, economists just don’t do it for me despite their over-confidence in the survival of the fittest stakes. They may see themselves as clashing phallic bulls (!) that women are fighting to jump into bed with, but we women beg to differ. After reading your book, give me an academic anyday.

    I LOVED Injustice. The revolution starts here

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