The Spirit Level


There's yet another attempt to show us that inequality is the root of all that is wrong with society. That if only we were more equal in incomes then, well, apparently bunnies would be fluffy and there would be a pony for every little child.

Now it is true that they can show a correlation between economic inequality and a variety of effects and yet, yet:

Wilkinson draws on some eclectic illustrations. When monkeys are kept in a hierarchical environment, those at the bottom self-medicate with more cocaine; a caste gap opens in the performance of Hindu children when they have to announce their caste before exams; the stress hormone, cortisol, rises most when people face the evaluation of others; and so on.

Those are all the results of a status heirarchy, not an economic one.

Wilkinson believes the answer lies in the psycho-social areas of hierarchy and status.

Well, quite. Which leaves us with an interesting question. Is the economic inequality actually the important point here? Further, can the ill effects of heirarchy and status be wiped out by reducing the economic inequality?

Allow me to put forward an alternative thesis, one that matches the correlation but reverses the causation.

Some societies are, for whatever reason, more egalitarian than others. Sweden, say, is more so culturally than the UK is. This leads to, amongst other things, their acceptance of a taxation system that reduces economic inequality. That same egalitarianism also leads to less heirarchy and status competition, leading to fewer of the harmful effects the authors say those have. But it is not the economic equalising that performs this, it's that both are inherent in the society itself.

I don't insist that this is true of course, merely propose it as an alternative explanation. But if it is this way around then the attempted economic equalising won't clear up those ill effects. We'll just get the same problems but at a lower general standard of living as we carry the deadweight costs of the taxation.

One of the things that makes me suspect that matters are my way around is looking at England itself. We certainly have heriarchy and status, we also have a certain amount of economic inequality. But no one who has ever even vaguely looked at the English class system is going to assume, even in jest, that status or your position in the heirarchy depend upon the amount of money you've got. Shifting the money around isn't going to have all that much effect on status then, is it?