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).
If 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.