04 January 2011

Equality and The Good Life

Excerpt from YES! Magazine, 4 March, 2010

'For decades, (British Epidemiologist) Richard Wilkinson has studied why some societies are healthier than others. He found that what the healthiest societies have in common is not that they have more—more income, more education, or more wealth—but that what they have is more equitably shared.

In fact, it turns out that not only disease, but a whole host of social problems ranging from mental illness to drug use are worse in unequal societies. In his latest book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, co-written with Kate Pickett, Wilkinson details the pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, encouraging excessive consumption...

Wilkinson: 'We quote a prison psychiatrist who spent 25 years talking to really violent men, and he says he has yet to see an act of violence which was not caused by people feeling disrespected, humiliated, or like they've lost face. Those are the triggers to violence, and they're more intense in more unequal societies, where status competition is intensified and we're more sensitive about social judgments...

This is about the psychosocial effects of inequality—the impact of living with anxiety about our feelings of superiority or inferiority. It's not the inferior housing that gives you heart disease, it's the stress, the hopelessness, the anxiety, the depression you feel around that...

What we've learned is that the real quality of life for all of us now depends on improving the social environment, and that we have a policy handle on how to do that. It's not that we all need to have more therapy to try and make us nicer people. Income distribution, an issue government or big corporations can do something about, really affects the psychosocial well-being of the whole society. But we can't just rely just on taxes and benefits to increase equality—the next government can undo them all at a stroke. We've got to get this structure of equality much more deeply embedded in our society. I think that means more economic democracy, or workplace democracy, of every kind. We're talking about friendly societies, mutual societies, employee ownership, employee representatives on the board, cooperatives—ways in which business is subjected to democratic influence. The bonus culture was only possible because the people at the top are not answerable to the employees at all...''

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