This idea is not going away. As part of the research for my new book, I visited the OECD last week and interviewed eight people there. The concept of low inequality being a ‘good thing’ was referred to explicitly or implicitly a remarkable number of times.
Professor Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level was giving a talk there and there is little doubt that he found a receptive audience.
I suggested to one of the senior staff at the OECD that inequality played a part in incentivising effort. She replied that Sweden and Japan (or did she say Switzerland?) had relatively low levels of inequality yet were prosperous societies.
The issue is even reaching the USA. See these letters in the New York Times today.
I am very uneasy about the concept. I referred to the counter-blast book, The Spirit Level Delusion in a previous entry. Apparently Professor Wilkinson has written a response in a subsequent edition of The Spirit Level. He does produce a lot of correlations between high inequality societies and various undesirable outcomes such as mental illness. But correlation obviously does not prove causation, even if he has not been selective in choosing which countries to include (making the correlations look more convincing).
I wonder whether the true causation of the ill effects he tracks may be other things such as poor education systems leading to illiteracy which in turn can contribute to crime and unemployment. A bad healthcare system can lead to lower health outcomes. The real causation might be quite different from what he thinks.
It is a subject that all of us who are concerned with politics and social policy are going to have to deal with.
I guess my major problem with the idea is that, to me, it just does not ring true. I really doubt that my health and happiness is impaired because the Queen is vastly richer than I am. I do not compare myself with her or with Alan Sugar. I compare myself with people I knew at school, friends, family and neighbours. I think my health and happiness are far more influenced by my work and my personal relations.
There are certain concepts that were taken for granted as being valid and important at the OECD. In addition to low inequality, there was the idea that women should work because of both economic efficiency and equality with men. The concepts that did not get so much of a look-in were personal freedom, personal responsibility and the idea that families headed by the natural, married parents might be good for the children.
I should add that some of the people I met at the OECD are among the most intelligent and capable I have ever encountered. I was given a terrific opportunity to have access to their knowledge and research for which I am very grateful.
- Superb counter-blast against the growing consensus that equal incomes make for happier countries
- The welfare state does not make us happy
- We don’t follow logic. We follow emotions
- “Inequalities in health status tend to be lower in three of the four countries with a private insurance-based system”
- BBC propaganda about inequality