Is Sweden too boring?

The Swedish group 'Abba'For those on the left, it’s almost taken for granted that a more equal society is a good thing.  As we’ve discussed before for ‘The Spirit Level’, there are evidence-based (but contentious) claims that more equal societies are healthier, safer, and more pleasant places to live – as well as giving people a fairer share of society’s wealth.  But what if there are downsides to living in more equal societies?  What if they are healthier, safer – and more boring?

Given the risk of sounding as xenophobic as the Daily Mail, I should make clear that I’m not glibly dismissing low-inequality Scandinavia as ‘dull’.  It’s just not a word that fits the homelands of Abba and a-ha.  Yet there is a serious question here, based on the fact that low-inequality societies – be they Sweden or 1950s Britain – are somehow different from high-inequality societies.  I want to argue two things here: firstly that some of these differences are likely to be negative; and secondly, that different inequality-suppressing mechanisms are likely to have different side-effects.

The dark side of equality?

The most obvious candidate for a negative side-effect is ‘over-regulation’ – that social norms to act in certain ways are simply too strong.  We certainly have reason to believe that declining social capital might lead to higher inequality, as people lose their moral restraints from social norms against very high earnings (as suggested by Bob Putnam – although Bo Rothstein has argued that it is in fact inequality that causes low social capital).  We could even tie this into the political shifts that Pierson & Hacker argue explain rising inequality, with these changing social norms leaving politicians free to listen to business interests.

The problem with such over-regulation is that it can limit people’s ability to live their life the way they want. Emile Durkheim classically argued that over-regulation could lead to certain forms of suicide, which is mirrored in the argument of one of the critics of The Spirit Level. Saunders has observed that suicide rates in high-inequality countries are actually lower than in low-inequality countries, as shown in the Figure below (reproduced from p102).

The relationship between suicide and inequality across countriesIf we subject this argument to a bit of scrutiny, though, it falls apart in our hands.  Firstly, more systematic research doesn’t necessarily show that inequality helps reduce suicide.  Secondly, it’s difficult to argue that Sweden is an ‘over-regulated’ society – the classic cultural comparisons by Hofstede on IBM employees, for example, show that Swedes are actually quite individualistic.  And there are clearly other, less equal societies that have strong social pressures linked to family obligations (such as Italy). Over-regulation doesn’t seem to be a link between inequality and bad outcomes – at least not in this simple way.

What we need to know
Looking more widely, the main area of debate has been whether there is a trade-off between inequality and diversity, as argued in a provocative and influential piece by David Goodhart. Similarly, the idea that solidarity breeds contempt can be seen in the changes in Britain since the 1950s; yes we have more inequality, but we also have much less stigma against single mothers and homosexuality. Can we have one of these without the other?

In principle, we could side-step these difficult issues and simply see if more equal societies are happier on average – netting out the positive consequences of equality from The Spirit Level against any negative effects we might have missed.  There is a fascinating if complex literature on happiness and inequality, which interested readers can follow in these papers.  But aside from my instinctive dislike of reducing politics to happiness – more of which later – I think that our knowledge could take us further than this.

Instead of treating ‘inequality’ as a single phenomenon, we could see the causes and consequences of inequality as varied – and with some of these inequality-suppressing factors being more desirable than others. For example, we can imagine that the side-effects of an effective education/skills policy that minimises later pay inequality are relatively small; while the side-effects are much larger for a (hypothetical) society subject to very high informal social control.

My ideas here are only partly-formed – and I’m keen to hear readers’ responses to these (slightly provocative…) suggestions.  But somehow it seems necessary to aim for a full Cost-Benefit Analysis of inequality-reducing policies; looking not just at micro-interventions but entire changes in the nature of society.  Not an analysis of whether Sweden is ‘too boring’, then, but an analysis of particular causes of inequality – and how to make Britain more equal while keeping the parts of Britishness we value the most.

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About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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9 Responses to Is Sweden too boring?

  1. Graeme Kemp says:

    “Contentious” claims in ‘The Spirit Level’?

    I think you mean that some right-wing think-tanks have questioned some of the claims in ‘The Spirit Level’!

    The Equality Trust web-site has refuted these attacks.

  2. Ben Baumberg says:

    Thanks for the comment Graeme. Yes, you’re right to a point – personally speaking, I think that the claims in The Spirit Level are probably right, and the right-wing critics are often motivated by ideology more than convincing rebuttals.

    But there are some serious scholars who don’t agree with Wilkinson & Pickett. And more generally, I think there are a number of people who are sympathetic to The Spirit Level but who have concerns about how strong the evidence is – something that I (and hopefully others!) will come back to in future posts on the blog.

  3. Paul Kelleher says:

    Graeme, here’s one counterexample to the suggestion that only right-wing think tanks dispute the claims made by Wilkinson & Pickett:

    http://lanekenworthy.net/2010/01/18/inequality-as-a-social-cancer/

  4. Paul Kelleher says:

    A terminological question:

    In America, if you referred to “over-regulation,” you’d likely be pointing to the heavy hand of government regulation. But you clarify “over-regulation” to mean “that social norms to act in certain ways are simply too strong.” Is there just a different word in Britain/Europe for what the Americans mean, or do you wish to say that there’s no difference in kind between coercively enforced government regulation and regulation of conduct through the noncoercive pressures of prevailing social norms?

  5. Ben Baumberg says:

    I was really impressed by this Lane Kenworthy post when I first read it a few months ago – I think he’s a really smart, interesting guy.

    As for the terminology – I wasn’t trying to equate strong informal controls with strong government regulation. (One of the problems with blog posts is that you write them more quickly than academic articles, so you don’t quite define terms as carefully…).

    But this raises a really interesting – and simply vast – question about the nature of human freedoms. Firstly, I’m not sure I’d always describe prevailing social norms as ‘noncoercive’; single mothers in the 1950s and earlier would certainly disagree with that. Secondly, Durkheim is part of a long line of theorists who believed that (broadly-defined) regulation of the ego is necessary to constitute the individual.

    Rather than go into this myself, though, I’ll try and persuade one of my friends at LSE to write something about this – he’s spent a few years thinking and reading about these things, so he’s likely to be far more interesting than I would be.

  6. Paul Kelleher says:

    I agree that certain social norms can be coercive in an extended, metaphorical sense that nevertheless carries important moral weight. But let’s take one of your examples: social pressures in Italy to discharge standard (for Italy) family obligations. Should one rebel and declare one’s freedom from these, one may be ostracized to some degree, but the long arm of the law is not called in to adjudicate. In the U.S., talk of over-regulation betokens the real prospect of government intervention or steering, as when corporations are not permitted to offering anything less than the minimum wage, say.

    I don’t mean to snipe in a way more relevant if this were an academic paper and not a blog post. I was just curious what might underlie your use of “regulation” in a sense I assumed was more common abroad.

    Very interesting post.

  7. Ben Baumberg says:

    Thanks as ever Paul – I really like these short exchanges through the Comments section!

    You’re right that there’s a number of differences between social pressures and formal regulation, and that the possibilities of resistance are different. It’s interesting though that you chose the examples of corporate regulation as an example – I feel that regulating institutions is less limiting of individual freedom that regulating individuals (i.e. limiting corporate agency is different from limiting individual agency). I know that not everyone shares this view however…

  8. Paul Kelleher says:

    Ben–

    I agree that regulating institutions is less limiting of individual freedom that regulating individuals. But my question was mostly just about the use of the term “regulation” in general, and its connection to the idea of coercion in particular. It’s true that in the US talk of “regulation” brings regulation of corporations to mind. But we would think the term misused if it was at the center of a discussion about whether government can keep an individual out of a political speech just because s/he is wearing a protesting t-shirt (this happened quite a bit in the Bush years).

    My main curiosity was about the use of “regulation” to refer to social pressures such as those related to familial obligations. We in the use simply would not use “regulation” to refer to such pressures, because they are not coercive enough.

  9. Paul Kelleher says:

    Sorry. I meant to say:

    “But we would **not** think the term misused if it was at the center of a discussion about whether government can keep an individual out of a political speech just because s/he is wearing a protesting t-shirt (this happened quite a bit in the Bush years).”

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