Do more equal societies really do better?

It took a while to find an Individualist critique of the new book promoting equality, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, but here it is.

There’s a nice comment in Daniel Ben-Ami’s blog about a shift in Egalitarian aspirations:

‘It used to be a demand for more – for realising the human potential – whereas it is now typically a demand for less.’

It reminds me of an anecdote  by Jeremy Seabrook in one of his books about how the Mayor of Blackpool used to drive around in a Rolls Royce to show what all working class people should be getting.

The Economist also takes a shot at the idea of increased equality lowering the prospects for economic growth:

‘what if the price of greater equality is lower growth? The received wisdom—admittedly looking a little threadbare right now—is that rich rewards are necessary to stimulate the innovation on which growth depends. No loss, say the authors: “We have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us.” But that is a claim that needs to be supported, rather than simply made in a few sentences. If our ancestors had declared themselves thus satisfied, we would be without many things that we value—and that they would have valued too, could they have imagined them. Should we be ready to dismiss joys we have never known?’

However, there seems to be some sleight of hand here. The most equal developed nations – Scandinavia and Japan – have also had plenty of economic growth. It seems there’s no real reason why both growth and equality shouldn’t be possible and these countries seem to demonstrate that. So I’m unconvinced by Spirit Level that a display of data on inequality inexorably leads to a critique of economic growth, but  am equally unconvinced by the opposite view that policy shouldn’t promote equality in case it stymies economic growth.

Perhaps an alternative view would be to start from economic growth statistics and seek to understand what makes countries with similar levels of economic growth either more or less equal.

2 thoughts on “Do more equal societies really do better?

  1. I read an article a year or so before this book came out which made the point that the best quality of life seemed to correlate with those societies that had the most (socially) homogenous cultures, which has certainly related to Japan in the recent past and probably Sweden too. Of course, with today’s ideology, that is probably not going to be accepted, because it may suggest that multiculturism is not the most successful approach. However, it is worth considering whether the authors are considering effects rather than causes, that is, that equality is a result of societies in which there is fairly uniform real and informed agreement on social and cultural norms, not ones imposed by ascendant interest groups.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dan. It makes me wonder what the correlation is between societies with cultural/racial/echnic homogeneity (Japan being a good example, I guess) and societies with economic homogeneity (i.e. a low differential between the highest earners and the lowest, perhaps some Scandinavian countries, for instance). I think if adequate indicators could be worked out this would be worth mapping. Probably, someone already has, but I haven’t seen it.

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