Inequality and civic morality

Romney & Romney

The moral bankruptcy of the modern rich is a popular topic these days; whether they are private individuals avoiding tax (see Jimmy Carr, Lord Ashcroft, and the new kings of full-on tax evasion, Dolce & Gabanna), or the heads of corporations overseeing damaging policies (and, of course, avoiding tax).

This is often framed in terms of a decline in ‘civic morality’. There was a time, so the thinking goes, when the rich had a better appreciation of their responsibilities with respect to wider society. The Daily Beast’s  Michael Tomasky (among others) put this bluntly in the run up to the 2012 election with his frequent comparisons of Mitt Romney with his father, George, who also ran for president (some micro-class immobility there…). When Romney Sr. ran in 1964 he released 12 years of documentation showing he paid an effective rate of 37% in tax. In 2012 Romney the junior released only one year of returns where he’d paid 14% – the suspicion being that if he’d revealed any more year’s returns, the rate would have been even lower. Tomasky contrasts the responsibility of George Romney’s generation with the “Take every loophole. Hide your finances. Get away with everything you can possible get away with” mindset of Mitt’s.

So has there really been a sharp decline in civic morality among the rich (and indeed among the rest of us), as Tomasky suggests? And, if so, could it have something to do with increasing inequality? Well as to the first question, I don’t know. For the rich perhaps you could look at changing rates of tax evasion or tax avoidance, but getting comparable data might be difficult. As for the rest of us, there are at least some suggestions that ‘civic morality’ might be on the decline – for example the oft discussed waning of support for the welfare state in the UK.

There are several possible reasons why increasing inequality might be at the root of such a change (if one exists). One is that widening gaps in lifestyles and decreasing interactions between social groups might lead to an ‘empathy gap’. The middle classes pull away from the poorest to such an extent that they become almost like a different species; and the same thing happens with the 1% and the rest of society. This is an important idea that I want to return to, but it’s not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a different argument that Richard Wilkinson puts forward in both The Impact of Inequality and Mind the Gap; two books written prior to The Spirit Level. Where the latter book concentrates on the ultimate negative outcomes caused by inequality, The Impact of Inequality and Mind the Gap go into more detail about the psychological mechanisms that supposedly lie behind these effects.

In brief, Wilkinson’s argument is that people are born with an inbuilt sensitivity to cues about the kind of society they are living in. This sensitivity helps them shape their behaviour to be most adaptive to their current environment. In a relatively flat, egalitarian society, cooperative, altruistic behaviour might be most adaptive – there are not huge advantages to be gained from social superiority so there’s no point wasting too much energy competing for status. Contrarily, in a strongly hierarchical society status matters a lot more, and seeing others as potential collaborators, rather than as competition, could be a sure path to the bottom of the pile. This means that if we find ourselves in a more unequal society, we should develop a more selfish and competitive, less empathetic and collaborative mindset. In other words, civic morality takes a backseat to worrying about yours truly. In The Impact of Inequality Wilkinson chooses a nice quote from George Bernard Shaw to illustrate this idea:

“Inequality takes the broad, safe, and fertile plain of human society and stands it on edge so that everyone has to cling desperately to her foothold and kick off as many others as she can”

If inequality really does have these fairly fundamental effects on our psychological outlook, then this is pretty bad news for the future of our society. It would mean that inequality itself actively discourages the kind of outlook that would support inequality-reducing policies – a kind of horrible vicious circle.  But before we all give up and go home, we should try and find out if this effect is actually real; and if so, how big it is.

I’ve talked here before about the difficulty of demonstrating a causal effect of inequality by looking across societies, and the evidence does not yet exist to overcome those problems. However, there is some initial suggestive evidence we can look at. First, there are a large number studies showing that social affiliation (people joining clubs and societies) and trust is lower in more unequal areas (for example, see here, here, and here) – although there are obviously explanations other than a psychological effect of inequality which could explain this. Second, a few intriguing few studies have experimentally manipulated income inequality in small group settings and found that greater inequality leads people to be less generous and trusting (see here and here).

Finally, (a bit of shameless self-promotion here), there’s a paper I wrote with Sam Gosling from UT Austin in which we tried to address the question directly using a big US personality survey. We found that people living in more unequal states in the US tended to score lower on the Agreeableness personality trait, which measures the extent to which people are empathetic, altruistic, and inclined towards friendship and cooperation. Again, there could be many reasons for this association – not least that the character of the people living in a state might influence its redistributive policies (ours was only a cross-sectional study). But it’s some initial evidence at least of an association between inequality and people’s psychological outlook.

Up until now, the overwhelming majority of research into the inequality hypothesis has focused on specific outcomes; particularly health. This is no surprise really. Concrete outcomes like mortality are easier to measure than fuzzy concepts like empathy, altruism, or civic morality. You could also argue that they’re more important. Maybe it is better to know whether inequality kills than whether it encourages a jerkish attitude. But I’d be really interested to see people do some more work on this psychological aspect of the theory. Over and above whether inequality can affect health, I would really like to know whether it can affect who we are, and how we think and feel about each other.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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4 Responses to Inequality and civic morality

  1. I read your paper, it was very interesting but a focus on racial classification rather than ethnicity might have obscured differences between whites- famously states settled by Scandinavians tend to higher agreeableness and states settled from Ulster tend not to. How much of this might be generationally-transmitted culture which then has an impact on inequality?
    Also with regard to racial homogeneity, it seems plausible that this would have three interactions with inequality- the most dynamic economies attract immigrants, and churning labour markets are not often equal. Secondly the Putnam theory about diversity deteriorating social bonds would suggest an empathy gap which might translate to policies (as you have alluded to), and thirdly there are big differences in labour market outcomes for different racial groups which may have a separate effect from just policies. How would you account for this in the US?

  2. An American says:

    Do these studies, or others, look at the effects of the Internet in terms of personal associations, and the Internet as a sort of “class struggle” in and of itself (i.e. open-source egalitarianism vs. closed-source competitiveness and money made from “data mining”)? Different schools of thought either describe the Internet as the great barrier-buster (i.e. people from different countries engaging in an international dialogue that transcends borders) or the greater marginalizer (i.e. people with a conservative political mindset will gravitate towards Fox News’ website whereas people with a liberal political mindset will gravitate towards Huff Post — and never the twain shall meet), or somewhere in between, encompassing both (conservatives from various countries on Fox’s site and liberals from various countries on Huff’s site). Has there been any research done incorporating the Internet as a factor in class consciousness and social (in)equality, in terms of how I described?

    • Robert de Vries says:

      That’s an interesting question and I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer. I know that a lot of people worry about whether the way sharing has evolved on the internet might mean that people might end up living in their own little bubbles, insulated through reddit subscriptions, facebook friends, and twitter follows from opinions different from their own. But it feels like people have been predicting this for years and it hasn’t really come to pass. It doesn’t seem like you have to go long on twitter before you find someone who disagrees with you!

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