How the left won the argument on inequality… and where it got us…
People’s politics are very often located very deep in their psychological makeup. I am someone who finds it very hard to see the worst in human character. I am therefore a progressive – my politics seeks to make a better world by harnessing human goodness. Other find it hard to see the best in human character. Their politics are conservative – aimed at preventing what they see as the inevitable harm that humans do to each other.
This almost certainly forms a spectrum. Some people believe politics must be about preventing people from harming one another. Others believe politics is the place where we can create a better future. This is the defining difference between progressives and conservatives. And it’s almost impossible to prove to an optimistic person that there is no potential for human goodness. Conversely it’s very difficult to prove to a pessimistic person that human actions are anything other than self-serving.
From a progressive view of the world:
Chad McCail’s “No one charges no one pays” from food shelter clothing fuel
To a conservative view of the world:
William Hogarth’s Gin Lane
These beliefs are known by philosophers as axioms. An axiom is a rule that is assumed to be true because they can neither be proven nor disproven, but is necessary for making decisions about more complex issues.
But occasionally there comes a point where the internal contradictions of a particular world view bring it down. I think we’re now at that point with the Thatcherite economic experiment. After 30 years we can now see that the outcomes of this worldview are doing severe damage to those it was claimed would benefit most.
At the heart of the Thatcherite revolution was the axiom that making the rich richer would make the poor richer too. Setting the power of enterprise free would mean well paying jobs for all. The rich would have to be much richer, and keep getting much richer than the poor, but the poor would still be wealthier. Of course, many rejected this axiom. But it’s now becoming clear that this has never happened and never will happen. In fact the reverse is true. The rich getting richer makes the lives of the poor substantially worse.
In 1990 Thatcher expounded this position to Simon Hughes, as seen in the video below:
I first came across the work of Richard Wilkinson at University. For 5 or 6 years I suggested to others that it was inequality more than behaviour that determined how healthy people were – not an idea that I got much traction with. Then last year, Wilkinson released a book, published with Kate Pickett, which made the breakthrough to the mainstream.
The Spirit Level demonstrates that in advanced industrial countries inequality drives ill health and other undesirable outcomes across a wide range of indicators. These include infant mortality, life expectancy, violence, trust, social capital and school bullying. It does this using cold, hard statistical modelling. It’s not an ideological book. It merely makes the case that the inequality demonstrably ruins people’s lives.
Further than that, it makes the case that an unequal society is worse for everyone to live in. Higher levels of crime, less trust, and lower levels of social capital are worse for everyone. The obvious policy response is to reject Thatcherism and move toward a more compassionate system that would create a better society for everyone. This evidence undermines the right’s axiom that inequality is good for everyone.
So what was the response from the right? Well, to try to rubbish the evidence, of course. Peter Saunders at right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange published a report suggesting that the research by Wilkinson and Pickett could be “fatally undermined”. Wilkinson and Pickett being serious academics published a step by step rebuttal of how Policy Exchange had misunderstood their ideas. With sheer weight of argument the Policy Exchange’s work is easily dismissed.
Last week Sheffield University’s Professor Danny Dorling published more evidence of the impact of inequality. The damning report suggests that inequality is now greater than it was during the Great Depression. The report suggests that while between 1999 to 2007, for every 100 deaths before the age of 65 in the richest 10th of areas, there were 212 in the poorest. This clear injustice is a damning indictment of the Thatcherite economic experiment. It adds to the overwhelming evidence that increasing inequality creates a worse society for everyone.
Sadly we have a government utterly committed to deepening and widening exactly the policies that have proved so disastrous for our country. The current cuts agenda, championed by the Conservatives, and supported by the Liberal Democrats will make our country a much worse place for everyone to live in. The cuts fly in the face of the evidence about what makes a good society. The only way to ensure greater levels of equality is to protect spending on the most vulnerable. That’s the opposite of what our government is doing.
It’s time for us to fundamentally challenge the assumptions of the radical right, and stop the ideologically motivated plunder of our country. You can help do that by supporting the Equality Trust, and by signing up for the anti-cuts campaign at “No Shock Doctrine for Britain”.