188.8.131.52 Reasons for Reducing Inequality
The political reasons for reducing economic inequality are to improve people’s quality of life, and to avoid discontent and instability
Thomas Piketty argues that “this state of affairs [where “the rich get richer”] is simply not sustainable, and however it ends, it ends badly”, according to an overview of the book published by The Economist on 25 April 2014: Reading “Capital”: Part 4, Conclusion, and recap. It is necessary to address the problem as a matter of political survival:
● Nick Pearce’s review of the book, entitled Thomas Piketty: a modern French revolutionary, describes its sweeping analysis of the potential for revolution. The French Revolution in 1789, and what the BBC called an “Arab uprising” in Tunisia, are examples of dramatic political upheavals.
● In a democracy, there can be a voter backlash. Martin Jaques, in a 2016 article The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics, asserted that economic inequality “is, bar none, the issue that is driving the political discontent that is now engulfing the west”. The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union in a ‘Brexit’, both in 2016, can be seen as examples of voter discontent with the political establishment.
“For all its flaws, …democratic capitalism remains far and away the best system for human flourishing. But something has gone seriously awry: the growth of prosperity has slowed, and the division of its fruits between the hypersuccessful few and the rest has become more unequal. The plutocrats have retreated to their bastions, where they pour scorn on government’s ability to invest in the public goods needed to foster opportunity and sustainability. But the incoming flood of autocracy will rise to overwhelm them, too, in the end.”
Improved quality of life leads to satisfaction with the government, and is among the political reasons for reducing economic inequality:
● It diminishes the value in being wealthy if, the moment one steps out of one’s door, one is surrounded by poverty and resentment. Good public facilities and contented neighbours are as much valued by the rich as by the poor.
● In a book published in 2009, “Research by Richard Wilk[in]son and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator”, as quoted by the BBC in a review: The Spirit Level: Britain’s new theory of everything?.
Unequal societies “have more violence, they have higher teenage birth rates, they have more obesity, they have lower levels of trust, they have lower levels of child well-being, community life is weaker and more people are in prison.”
Although this was challenged, a convincing and detailed response was published: Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, reply to critics. It showed that the critics had used questionable methods to try to discredit a message that they had found to be unwelcome.
Two leading 20th century philosophers have offered clear thinking about economic inequality, putting forward centrist policies that might seem reasonable to many people and might therefore attract popular support:
● John Rawls put forward one suggestion in his book A Theory of Justice [sect. 11, p. 53]:
“social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and b) attached to positions and offices open to all.”
● Michael Sandel, in his book Justice [p. 156], offered another approach:
“Encourage the gifted to develop and exercise their talents, but with the understanding that the rewards these talents reap in the market belong to the community as a whole. Don’t handicap the best runners; let them run and do their best. Simply acknowledge in advance that the winnings don’t belong to them alone, but should be shared with those who lack similar gifts.”
It should not be forgotten that political satisfaction increases with economic well-being. An economy grows more strongly if wealth is more evenly distributed, as described previously (184.108.40.206).
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6722b.htm.