The overwhelming majority of the general public over recent decades have supported "equal opportunity", "equal rights", "equal pay" and "racial equality" and liberals from across the political spectrum have taken matters a step further by declaring for "marriage equality". Like "freedom" and "civilisation", "equality" has become a bipartisan political shibboleth.
Over the past five decades in the democratic western states (which include the Republic of South Africa) all legal forms of race and gender discrimination have been abolished. These changes have been welcomed as ushering in an era of "equality" between men and women, white and black, but their purpose has not been purely altruistic, and those who anticipated the dawning of a new era of substantive, as opposed to formal, equality have been disappointed. The most substantive effect of women's and black liberation has been to fully integrate women and black workers into the system of wage labour. As welcome as that may be, it has not opened the gates to paradise for women or black people, but it has lead to a massive extension in the market for goods and services, new opportunities for profit and cheaper sources of labour.
Formal equality does not equate to material or substantive equality. The opposite is generally the case. Formal equality implies the existence of positions of privilege, without which there would be no need for equality. The rights to stand for election to parliament, to seek employment, and to marry are important because they provide access to positions of power and privilege over those who are not members of parliament, not employed, or not married. In fact, within advanced capitalist societies there may be a negative correlation between formal and substantive equality, as formal equality removes the sense of moral obligation which must to greater or lesser degree accompany all systems of exclusive right or privilege. Highly ordered societies, such as the US and New Zealand, where there is a concentration of power at the micro- and macro-level must be substantively unequal. Politicians must rule over citizens, and managers must direct workers. It does not matter whether those politicians or managers are men or women, white or black, heterosexual or homosexual. They will exercise power over others, they will be parties to unequal relationships, and they will, in the normal course, be materially advantaged over those who they govern or direct. A nation of yeoman farmers ordered into shires or cantons may be very equal, but if New Zealand ever was such a nation, it is no longer. The ownership of farm and residential land has been concentrated in few hands. Dozens of boroughs have been amalgamated into one "super city". Two concurrent and dominant trends in New Zealand society - privatisation and concentration - logically and necessarily lead to greater inequality of power, and in probable if not inevitable consequence, greater inequality of wealth and income. State or public assets are quite compatible with inequality of income. In fact some of the most pronounced inequalities in New Zealand society exist within the state service, or between the state service and the private sector. But by the simple mathematical principle of averages, state assets, if considered as public or collective assets to which each citizen has an equal claim, must militate against inequality of wealth, and their privatisation will in short order increase inequality of wealth, even if the assets themselves or the proceeds of a sale were to be evenly shared among all citizens. Some will squander and some will be defrauded of their shares, some will be obliged to spend their share on the passing necessities of life, some will donate to charity, some will invest prudently and some will use their shares to unscrupulously exploit others. The outcomes will inevitably be uneven, and the net effect will be greater inequality in society. So inequality is no accident. It is a matter of policy. It might even be a good policy, but that is a question which requires us to address the consequences of material inequality, which are not simply and entirely good or evil.
The extension of formal social equality (legal, contractural and employment rights) to women and blacks has occurred at the same time as a marked society-wide decline in material equality of wealth and income. Thus it is not necessarily surprising that the countries, such as the US and New Zealand, with the highest degrees of formal equality also have the highest degree of material inequality among their citizens. Consequently an "egalitarian" movement has emerged in reaction to the increasing inequalities of wealth and income within the democratic capitalist societies of the west, and this movement has been supported by political commentators from both left and right. The left expresses anger, and argues that inequality hinders economic growth, while the right raises a note of alarm, tacitly acknowledging the possibility of social unrest as a consequence of unmitigated social inequality. However most egalitarians stop well short radical solutions such as socialisation of wealth, or equal shares of the national income or wealth for all citizens, and limit themselves to arguing for a "fairer" distribution of wealth and income which, they hope, will be sufficient to assure the stability and continuity of the present order into the forseeable future.
The egalitarian movement, which is essentially reformist, invites us to revisit the "reform or revolution", debates of the nineteenth and twentieth century in which Christian socialism, Christian democracy, social democracy and Marxist socialism contend to offer ideological solutions to the palpable problem of the condition of the poor in a capitalist economy. To some this may seem a step too far backwards. Why start over again when the issue has already been debated for centuries? The answer must be that none of the proposed solutions - Christian democracy, the welfare state or Marxian communism - have worked consistently well in practice. They may have worked to a degree and for a time but in the end have failed, and we need to understand why they failed before proposing new solutions.
Equality does matter. It is a potent trigger to the emotions, and second only to "freedom" or "liberty", in the rhetoric of most political persuasions. But attitudes towards equality are complex and contradictory. Most people subscribe to the idea that all are equal in a metaphysical sense ("in the sight of God" for the religious) and almost everyone acknowledges that human beings are unequal in their physical and mental abilities but that is the limit of the common ground. Egalitarians believe that all should receive a more or less equal share of the resources of the earth and the products of labour while others believe that there should not be any attempt to correct inequalities of wealth or income arising out of innate mental and physical inequalities. At first blush and assuming income to be normally distributed it might seem that egalitarianism would appeal to that half of the population who receive less than the average income and be resisted by those who receive more than the average. It is not that simple however because there are those among the humble poor who are persuaded that they are less deserving and so are content with less, those among the altruistic rich who favour a greater degree of equality, and the majority of the population who believe themselves to be innately above average, and are therefore convinced that sooner or later they will move into the ranks of the more affluent in a market economy which guarantees equality of opportunity.
"Narcissism", which Wilkinson and Pickett noted as a feature of contemporary western capitalism, serves a social purpose. In kindergartens, schools and tertiary colleges, young people are imbued with a sense of "self-worth", "self-esteem" and "love of self" through which all, however meagre their talents, gain assurance that they will win a place in the race for wealth and social status. Many assume that the contemporary notion of "self-esteem", or narcissism as it is called byWilkinson and Pickett, is associated with social equality when the exact opposite is the case. The cult of "self-esteem" reaches its highest state of development in the most unequal societies, such as New Zealand, where in particular those children who are doomed to fail by the standards of society are indoctrinated with the notions that personal ambition should motivate their actions, and that everyone has the natural talent necessary to achieve their ambitions. As in Lake Woebegone where "all the children are above average", a random sample of the population may reveal that well over half the sample consider themselves to be "above average" in the qualities required for success. That phenomenon is a source of comfort to the ideologues of capitalism and all those who rejoice in the "hope which springs eternal in the human breast". It may, however be a source of frustration to those egalitarians who are seeking rational, democratic solutions to the deep and seemingly intractable problems of global capitalism. By the time the brutal reality of unfulfilled ambition sinks home - usually in the fourth decade of life - it is too late for people to take stock, think again, turn themselves around and challenge the social order. In more equal nations, such as Japan, narcissism is less prevalent because Japanese citizens in general occupy a more or less equal place in society, and thus there is less requirement for mass self-deception in order to keep the wheels of the economy turning.
Equality per se.
To be "equal" is to "possess a specified or implied attribute or quality to the same degree" [OED]. The attribute or quality in respect of which two or more entities are equal must be specified, for example as "mass", "volume", "temperature", "strength", "intelligence", "wealth" or "income". The statement "All people are equal" is devoid of meaning unless there is an implied attribute to complete the statement. Usually the relationship of equality refers to measurable attributes, but it is often applied to true or false type attributes, such as the rights to enter into contracts, vote or marry.
Equality or inequality is established by abstraction. We say that two objects - a sack of corn and a sack of sugar say - are equal in mass. That is to strip away all the characteristics which distinguish them - their volume, texture, colour, taste and so on - to concentrate on the one single variable in which there exists equality between the two sacks. This process of abstraction is useful for science, commerce and sociology. But it can lead to dangerous illusions when one is dealing with unique objects with real differences, as distinct from either commodities or idealised objects.
Many people believe that any two objects will fall at the same same velocity under the influence of gravity because they have been told that the acceleration due to gravity is the same for all objects. Yet, when pressed they will have to admit their theory-based notion is not correct. In the real world a stone and a feather do not fall at the same velocity, because they are not idealised masses and the physical conditions of the real world do not correspond to the idealised conditions of physical theory. The stone and feather are real objects with distinct properties which affect their descent velocity. Similarly, two logs of the same species, the same volume and the same diameter might be considered "equal" in the log trade. But their other distinct properties - their straightness, taper, proportion of heartwood, internal knots and defects - significantly affect their value and usefulness. Concepts of equality based on abstraction of one or other variables or properties can be misleading as well as useful.
Any two objects are definitively equal with respect to their common identity, and may be relatively equal, or unequal, with respect to their other attributes. An apple will be absolutely and definitively equal to another apple in respect of that thing which makes an apple an apple - namely that it is the fruit of an apple tree. Otherwise, all apples will be more or less unequal, or if one prefers more or less equal, in their other properties such as size, mass, colour, taste and texture.
The laws of physics state that "force is equal to mass times acceleration", "momentum is equal to mass times velocity" and so on. Such statements are called equations because they postulate that one thing is equal to another. There is no "more or less" and no "approximation". These equalities are absolute and definitive. Such absolute equalities are only true in theory, which is to say in ideal or perfect circumstances. The fundamental equations of physics are only true when dealing with perfectly elastic masses in the absence of friction, which is never the case in the real world of matter. Similarly social laws which define any one person as the absolute equal of another in law or politics hold true in the ideal world of political theory, but in real society inequalities of wealth, stature, appearance, dress, eloquence and even tone of voice tend to over-ride the theoretical equality of individuals before the law.
In the material world we are concerned with measuring, and changing, the way things actually are rather than with constructing idealised relationships between abstract entities. The norm in the real world is for things to be unequal, and much human effort goes into making things "more or less" equal. A bag of rice may be labelled as equal in mass to a standard kilogram weight, but it will never quite equal the kilogram, even if the difference is only a single grain of rice or less. A length of timber for a building stud will be set at 2.4 metres, but the actual cut length will never be exactly 2.4m, even if the difference is only a fraction of the width of a sawcut. To enable the free flow of commerce, the mass of each kilogram bag of rice must be as close as possible to the statutory kilogram. For the sake of a building's structural integrity, every stud must be as close as possible to the design height of 2.4 metres. Similarly the concept of "fairness" implies that there should be a relationship between the political ideal of legal equality between individuals and the social reality of relative material equality between those same individuals. No one would deny the practical importance of measures designed to ensure that all kilogram bags of rice were reasonably equal in mass, or that 2.4m studs were reasonably equal in length, but does a similar logic hold true for a human society? Does a society function better when its citizens are more or less equal in respect of wealth or income? Is it worth expending effort to achieve or maintain that degree of material equality? The authors of the ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures all believed that to be the case, and so do the contemporary authors of "The Spirit Level", Wilkinson and Pickett, but the situation is arguably more complicated than Wilkinson and Pickett suggest.
In the religious scheme, human beings are deemed to be absolutely and definitively equal to one another in their humanity which is determined not by their physical or mental qualities, but by their origin, or descent. The religious, legal and biological definition of a human being is "the offspring of a human being". This iterative legal and biological definition underlies the spiritual definition of a human being as descendant of the first woman ("Eve"). In the spiritual scheme all human beings are deemed spiritually equal by virtue of their common descent or common identity. Spiritual equality pays no regard to physical, intellectual or social attributes and therefore is the most absolute and inclusive definition of human equality possible.
In a democratic society, people are also deemed to be definitively equal in respect of their common identity as "citizens". The class of citizen is more restricted than the class of human being. Democratic citizenship depends on birthplace (rather than birth-parent, which is the rule of tribal and feudal systems, or primeval parent, which is the rule of spiritual systems) and thus, in the absence of world government, applies to only a subset of the human population. All those who are born within the territory of the state are deemed to be equal in respect of citizenship, and all others are generally excluded, subject to certain exceptions and limitations. For example felons may be excluded, naturalised immigrants included, and minors subject to limitations.
Democratic equality of the citizen is formal, specific and transient. For example almost all citizens have the right to vote, a formal right which is often incorrectly portrayed as a generalised right to participate in the process of government. In fact the right to vote only confers a momentary equality, which is negated in the instant that it is exercised. In the hour that the polls open the ordinary citizen appears equal to the politician yet from the moment the polls close, the politicians in government exercise power over the citizens, and the relationship of equality ceases to have currency. Equality in a democratic society is therefore not so much a condition of being as a relationship formed in particular processes, such as the electoral process, in which formal rights, such as the right to vote, specific, transient, and conditioned by relative inequalities of knowledge, wealth and power.
Legal or formal systems of equality are championed by those on the political right as a sufficient basis for a fair society. Usually expressed in such terms as "equality before the law" or "one law for all" and "equality of opportunity", they are enshrined in a set of rights such as the right to enter into contracts and the right to vote. These formal systems of equality appear to be universal and absolute and there is a widespread assumption that because they are universal and absolute they must in some way relate to inherent characteristics of the individual human being. In fact systems of formal equality, or the equality of rights are not innate, natural or universal. They are limited, specific, and particular to the socio-economic system.
The supposedly "universal" rights to vote and to enter into contracts (still not truly universal, because of age and other restrictions) only appeared at a very late stage in the development of democratic capitalism, and arguably are of greater benefit to the working of the politico-economic system than to the well-being of the mass of individuals to whom those rights are attributed. Having said that, such "equal rights" as do exist are absolute, in the same way that "infinity" and "zero" are absolutes of mathematics. The "infinity" of equal rights is their psychological potency, and that is why Afro-Americans, black South Africans and women everywhere in the twentieth century struggled passionately for the right to vote in elections and to contract into the relationships of employer or worker, tenant or landlord, alongside white men. The zero of equal rights is that they do not, and cannot, determine outcomes. The equality of the ballot box does not translate into equality of power, and the equality of the market does not bring equality of wealth and income in its train. In fact, while the equality of the ballot and the market may have ameliorated some of the psychological tensions in society, they have aggravated the underlying material inequalities.
The liberal paradigm runs "All people are born equal. Therefore they should be accorded the same legal rights. Once this is done, the inherent equality of all people will be recognised and social harmony will ensue". The truth is the opposite. All people are born unequal. Therefore they are accorded different legal rights. Giving equal rights to people who are inherently unequal will not result in a harmonious society. Individuals are only accorded legal equality when due to their own natural development they become the presumptive mental and social equal of those other individuals who hold rights as a matter of course. Peoples and gender groups are only accorded legal equality when due to changes in the material and social conditions, they become the social and economical equals of those groups who previously had exclusive claim to legal equality. Only when a child grows into adulthood is it given the right to guide its own life, vote, go to war, drink alcohol, enter into contracts, take up employment and marry. Women were only given equal rights in western capitalism when the differences between men and women in modern capitalist economies became of little significance, and blacks were given the same rights as whites in South Africa when their status as an educated urban people made them for the purposes of capitalism indistinguishable from whites. Equality must be presumed on the basis of age, for reasons of practical expediency, but in all of history it has never been assumed for categories of people. If a people are to claim legal equality, they must first establish themselves as social and economic equals.
We are not "born equal" and when the law deems us equal, it does so only with respect to certain specific attributes and roles. "Equal rights" as they exist in our era guarantee that the legal system will not discriminate between individuals on certain specified grounds such as social class, race, gender or creed. Any other form of discrimination, whether rational or otherwise, is permitted. For example legal systems rationally discriminate on the ground of age; judges rationally discriminate between those who abide by and those who break the law, and employers between job applicants on the basis of their perceived ability to enhance the profits of their enterprise. But employers may also legally discriminate on the arguably less rational grounds of which school a job applicant attended, who their parents were, which football team they played for or support, their height or their given name. Having discretion to discriminate on any grounds other than those expressly prohibited (such as race, gender or religion) they may in fact easily discriminate on those prohibited grounds while attributing their decision to other factors. Voters discriminate between candidates for election on the basis of policies, party affiliation, gender, height or tone of voice. People do not cease to discriminate when certain kinds of discrimination are banned through the provision of "equal rights". They discriminate on other grounds, some eminently rational, and some not. It should not be necessary to state the obvious, except for the fact that the waters around the concept of equality have been much muddied by those who have sought, often successfully, to create new rights under the pretext of making existing rights universal, and the widespread pretence that a market society can function "indiscriminately". Rational discrimination (and, for that matter, rational prejudice) are vital to the successful operation of a market economy and discrimination of any kind necessarily results in unequal outcomes.
Race or gender-based "equal pay" laws (which prescribe, for example, that men and women undertaking the same work shall be paid at the same rate) do not require that all people undertaking the same work should be paid at the same rate. Thus one woman may be paid at a different rate to another, one man at a different rate to another and legal remedy is only available to a woman who is paid less than a man, or vice versa. Such laws are not even fit for purpose, because they do not result in women being paid on average at the same rate as men, or blacks being paid on average at the same rate as whites. The reasons why blacks are paid less than whites, and women less than men, may be systemic, cultural or genetic but they are intractable factors which will not be resolved by laws banning discrimination solely on the basis of race or gender. So-called "equal pay" laws have been widely enacted, not because they are sensible or effective, but because they give the largely false impression that they make for a fairer society, are supported by a broad political consensus running from the extreme left to the far right, and do not threaten the class structure of capitalism.
A law which mandated equal pay for all types of work and all manner of workers would be simple and effective, but would be politically inconceivable in any advanced capitalist state. However the widely hailed "pay equality" and "equality of opportunity" laws and conventions do not produce equal or fair outcomes even within their own narrow definitions.
The normal state of nature is one of inequality, and equality is found only in the form of relative or approximate equality. Individuals have inherently different physical and mental abilities (such as strength, agility, dexterity, intelligence and courage) which are in large part genetically determined. They are born into different natural and social environments which determine how their abilities develop and whether they will have access to an abundance or paucity of the necessities of life. Furthermore, any particular section of the human population which is not a representative sample of the whole, for example a group selected on the basis of age, gender, race or nation, will have attributes which differ on average from those of the remaining population. Whether these differences are deemed significant or not, they are real and they are universal. Over a crucial range of specific capabilities and attributes children are not the equals of their parents, parents are not the equals of their children, women are not the equals of men and men are not the equals of women. That statement would be regarded as a truism in science, yet it is fiercely contested by those who believe that different races and genders are "equal" in all significant respects.
In a market economy there may be marked differences between individuals in nett wealth, income and consumption. Inequality of wealth tends to generate inequality of income, and inequality of income tends to result in unequal consumption, but various social interventions or behaviours - such as taxation, charity, borrowing and saving - can break or weaken those associations. One can reasonably assert that ultimately consumption, and equality of consumption, counts for more than equality of wealth or income. That is probably true of everyone in their "right mind", even though certain psychological types may put wealth before consumption (the "thrifty" or "miserly") or income before consumption (the "ascetic" or "obsessive worker"), or value income over wealth (the "socially mobile") or wealth over income ("old money"). Consumption can also take abnormal or deviant forms such as "conspicuous" or excessive consumption, or "irresponsible" consumption funded by debt. Imposed equality of wealth, income and consumption may have the generally welcome consequence of discouraging deviant behaviours. While consumption is the most immediate concern, either re-distribution or socialisation of wealth give the best assurance of relative equality of consumption in the medium to long-term. In ancient Hebrew society, re-distributions of wealth took place every fifty years, and some such convention is probably necessary to the recurrent stabilisation and re-vitalisation of modern capitalism.
Wealth gives control over assets, and hence power to decide the direction taken by the economy and society. It is that power which makes inequality of wealth either necessary or problematic, depending on the circumstances. Given the natural inequality of abilities within the human race, we can assume that some are better qualified to manage wealth than others, and thus that the wealth of society may be more safely invested with a select few rather than distributed equally among the mass of society. The problem is how to determine who those select few may be. The argument that those who have acquired wealth must be best qualified to manage is plausible, but not entirely convincing, because it's truth depends on the moral context in which wealth is obtained. Wealth acquired by thrift and wise judgement is one thing. Wealth acquired by a range of circumstances ranging from inheritance through sharp practice and gambling to illicit activities are another. Only in a thoroughly moral society in which wealth is not subject to inheritance, and where wealth is "properly" acquired and disposed of, can we convincingly assert that those who possess wealth are best qualified to manage it. In other circumstances there may be mechanisms, ranging from essentially random re-distribution through conquest and plunder, through revolutionary expropriation of wealth, to the Islamic wealth tax or zakat or the more radical Jewish system of "jubilee" both of which designed to re-distribute wealth in ways conducive to the public good.
In New Zealand in the period since 1984 wealth has been re-distributed by privatisation of state assets, a repeat of the seventeenth century British enclosures of the common lands by large landowners, leading to the concentration of wealth into few hands. Even strictly equal distribution of the proceeds of sale of collective assets inevitably gives rise to greater degrees of social inequality. Inequality is a necessary consequence of privatisation of public assests, and not a matter of chance or circumstance, and the programme of privatisation was conducted in the full knowledge that this would be the case.
The deliberate, politically driven concentration of wealth into very few hands in New Zealand has been justified on the same grounds as revolutionary expropriation of wealth, or nationalisation of private assets, namely that state assets would be better managed for the common good by their new private owners. In the final analysis that assertion must supported by empirical evidence. Ideological claims in favour of the merits of private or public ownership must be tested in the particular cases. The question to be asked is whether the likes of Alan Gibbs, Michael Fay and David Richwhite have served the New Zealand national interest better than the bureaucrats.
The state ownership model undeniably failed, if only because those ultimately entrusted with managing the state assets - the politicians - freely confessed that they were not competent to do so. But the form of re-distribution of wealth conceived by the New Zealand parliament was not soundly based. It should be followed by a second round of wealth re-distribution, undertaken with greater deliberation and genuine consideration for the public good
Income inequality is the chief concern of egalitarians. Income is important because it is the key determinant of potential to consume goods and services in a capitalist society. There exist established and generally accepted mechanisms, such as taxation and trade unionism, which can be used to adjust the distribution of income without upsetting the basic power structure of capitalism, which is based on wealth in the form of capital.
Is income related to industry? Up to a point. For those who are are employed by the hour, or on piece rate, and for most of those who are self-employed, income will be directly related to the time spent in work, or the effort expended, or both. However many sources of income, such as interest on capital, rents, dividends, speculative gains and most management position incomes cannot be related to hours or effort expended in work. There is also no clear relativity between the returns to different kinds of labour, for example office cleaning and professional football, teaching and currency trading, stock-broking and bank-telling. Within a particular trade or profession, such as law, there are wide disparities of income seemingly unrelated to effort, and within the broader work-force there are large disparities of income between managers and manual or clerical workers which cannot be explained by work or effort. Thus the positive relation between effort and income is very weak, at best and some have even suggested that there may be a negative correlation.
There is also reason to postulate a negative correlation between work and consumption. Anyone who genuinely works 12 hours a day 7 days a week, as many claim to, will have no spare time to enjoy the condominium in Hawaii, the bach at Wanaka, the super-yacht moored at Westhaven, the Maserati, fine dining at Antoines, the Sydney opera, or even the home theatre and wine cellar. A privileged lifestyle takes time, which can only come at the expense of work, and there are quite a few New Zealanders who live that privileged life. We can be reasonably confident that do not spend seventy hours of the week in work.
The management of inequality
Despite the equalitarian dogma, humanity has learned to manage the consequences of individual physical and mental inequalities through institutions such as the family and the state, through which those who have superior physical, and more particularly mental, abilities dictate to those who are less able. Children submit to the authority of their parents. In many social orders wives submit to husbands and youth to age. Within the wider society, the mass of the population submit to those who are deemed to be stronger, wiser, more decisive or valiant than themselves. Leaders or rulers are selected on the basis of their perceived superior attributes normally by consent of their subjects, and thus natural inequalities give rise to formal systems of social inequality. Even representative democracy, which is founded on the notion of equality, makes no sense unless there are perceptible inequalities between the individuals who make up the demos, and those inequalities are raised by an order of magnitude through granting the state authority to those who are judged to be superior in the attributes required for governance.
However any stable system of government relies upon the consent of the governed and hence the converse doctrine that all are equal "in the sight of God" or "the eyes of the law" or "their common humanity". This abstract, metaphysical equality transcends the material and social inequalities that separate the governors from the governed. In doing so it creates the expectation that parents will love and protect their children, husbands will love and cherish their wives, and governments will rule in the interests of their subjects. Such systems of authority and governance are represented in idealised form in religion, where, typically, an omnipotent, omniscient God exercises absolute authority over His people who He loves, guides and protects from harm and who in turn willingly consent to his rule.
Cynics and perhaps anarchists will be quick to suggest that the existence of abusive parents and husbands, despotic political regimes and exploiting employers proves that systems of authority exist for the benefit of rulers rather than subjects. Yet however widespread such cases may be, they are examples of dysfunction which sooner or later lead to the dissolution of families, the collapse of states and the disintegration of societies. The normal model of human social organisation is based on recognition and acceptance of inequality, the elevation of the most able to positions of authority by consent of the less able, and a commitment by those in authority to serve the interests of those who are subject to authority.
Does it matter that men are, on average, physically stronger than women? Does it matter that, up to a certain age, parents are stronger and wiser than their children? Does it matter if, on average, Kenyans can run faster than Inuits? Does it matter if one person is physically or intellectually more able than the next? Whether it matters or not, it is the reality of life, and fundamentally it does not matter, because human societies have ways of accepting difference as normal and responding appropriately.
Nor does it necessarily matter if women earn less than men or 5% of the population possess 50% of the wealth, so long as society has structures and processes for managing such inequality. If income is spent for the welfare of the entire family, and if wealth is used to the benefit of the entire community then any inequality in its initial distribution is of little practical consequence. If one person held all the world's wealth in trust, and if he or she used that wealth to the common good, that would be more desirable than our present circumstances. The crucial difference lies in systems of belief. Those who believe that everyone is "equal" and everyone has "equal opportunity", and that therefore there is no reason, imperative or even justification for sharing what they have with others, will use their income and wealth for their own edification. On the other hand, those who believe that all are inherently unequal, and that the strong have a duty to protect the weak, will share what they have in a responsible way.
That is not to say that a breadwinner will divide his or her income equally between every member of the family, for to do so would be to ignore the reality of unequal abilities to manage wealth. The responsible person will use his or her wealth in ways that, in his or her own best estimation, bring the greatest benefit to all. In some cases that will amount to giving the entire income to another person to manage. For example in the days of the male breadwinner it was not that uncommon for a wife to be solely entrusted with the task of managing the household income and outgoings.
In theory, it is possible for gross inequality of wealth to be associated
with absolute equality of income, and for gross inequality of income to
be associated with absolute equality of consumption.
Capitalism is theoretically compatible with equality of consumption so
long as the return to capital is saved, invested or given to charity and
any residual taken in tax. In other words, if capitalists
practice Calvinist frugality, a capitalist society can more or less achieve
equality of consumption.
In the final analysis, it is consumption which matters, but there are two ways of looking at consumption. One is the hedonist/utilitarian view that consumption of commodities and services is "a good" which should be maximised. The other is the ascetic/environmentalist view that consumption is an indulgence which should as far as possible be restrained or restricted. Both views are consistent with egalitarianism but the utilitarians will seek to prescribe a minimum level of consumption, while the ascetics will set a maximum.
Thus any attempt to impose a degree of equality in individual consumption of goods and services will be motivated by a desire to set all incomes either at some point above the "poverty level" or at some point below the "maximum sustainable environmental footprint". Given the political forces at work, both social democrats and environmentalists, within the egalitarian movement, the probable objective would be to set both upper and lower limits to individual consumption.
Failure to manage inequality
Systems of authority, whether natural or imposed, are prone to malfunction. Some mothers and fathers are considered "not fit to be parents" either because of inherited characteristics, or because their natural instincts and behaviours have been altered by social and historical circumstance. These failures are normally dealt with by community or wider family interventions, such as fostering and adoption. Aristocratic systems of government can also result in dysfunction, but there are informal checks (usurpation) and formal balances (the ameliating role of religion) sufficient to deal with anomalous events and occasional or sporadic failures of process in the normal course.
A more serious difficulty arises when historical circumstances give rise to a systemic failure to produce outcomes which are conducive to the stability and continuity of the social order. This can particularly affect democratic systems of government and capitalist systems of production.
First, the system of authority fails to accurately reflect the distribution of significantly important abilities within society as a whole. It is a basic condition of any system of authority that the those who have authority, power and influence must be more able, in the relevant attributes, than those who are subject to authority. For example, within the family, relative abilities shift dramatically over a generation, and authority structure within the family must adapt to fit. If the family fails to adapt appropriately, it will effectively and prematurely disintegrate. Similarly a society which fails to deliver authority on the basis of merit will become unstable. Circular arguments which suggest that successful ascension to a position of power is itself proof of merit will not cut the mustard. There are too many cases in history where wealth and power have parted company from merit and ability for such arguments to be taken seriously.
Second, those in authority begin put their own interests before the interests of those over whom they exercise authority. This latter situation which, most often comes in tandem with the first failure to reflect true merit, generally comes about as a result of profound ideological change. In the current historical context it is liberalism, which enjoys an uneasy and complicated relationship with egalitarianism, has undermined the ethic of responsibility to others, whether in the family, the system of governance, or the system of production.
Therefore natural or social inequality is not necessarily a problem, and imposed equality is not necessarily a solution. Social inequality only becomes a practical problem when it is divorced from natural inequality, or when it is unregulated by moral imperatives. Both conditions obtain in New Zealand today. There is no proportionality between work and wealth, judgement and power or wisdom and influence. It is also evident that generally speaking New Zealanders employ their wealth in the pursuit of personal happiness with little regard to moral constraint or imperative. This is the precarious reality of a liberal, secular society.
Some, who favour the idea of re-destribution of wealth to assist those who suffer from physical or mental infirmity might still bridle at the idea wealth should also be re-distributed to those whose reason for failing to prosper is purely attitudinal. Yet that proposition might still make good social sense. Personal ambition has its place in any society, but so does selfless dedication to the service of others. Ambition may enjoy an association with wealth, but to be viable, society needs to reward industry and service, which are not necessarily associated with ambition, income or wealth. Regardless of whether it comes as voluntary acts of charity, a system of income taxation and state benefits, or revolutionary expropriation of wealth, some form of wealth or income re-distribution is a either a necessary condition or an unavoidable consequence of excessive material inequality.
Inequality in New Zealand
The realm of New Zealand is the bi-polar offspring of Mother England. Most British immigrants were low church Presbyterians and Methodists and others seeking a new life in a more equal land, and the circumstances which they landed on these shores were conducive to the establishment of an egalitarian society. On the other hand, the explicit goal of the New Zealand Company was to plant a class-based society in the south seas. Over the past two centuries these two conflicting visions have contended for dominance, with the New Zealand Company model (now going by the name of "New Zealand Inc") having been dominant since 1984. Thus increasing material inequality is no unintended consequence of economic policy. It is a clear, often explicit, policy objective. Therefore documenting inequality will not, in itself, bring about a change in direction, as liberals hope. Attitudes towards equality, which are quite complex, must also change. Many of those who earn, or possess, less than the average are in favour of inequality because they aspire to, and believe they can achieve, higher earnings and greater wealth, while some of those who earn more than the average favour a greater degree of income equality either out of altruism, or because they believe that their own interests will not be compromised by a move towards greater degree of equality which stops well short of absolute equality of income. In the twenty-first century people do not declare themselves in favour of an unequal society, as they did in the nineteenth, but for all that a large body of New Zealanders, and the politically dominant element of society, do favour inequality of wealth and income. That tacit commitment to inequality must be exposed, confronted and overcome before there can be significant moves towards greater material equality in New Zealand.
However race and gender equality in employment, which is the historical evidence that capital has freed itself from the ties of sentiment, is easily delivered. No longer bound to outmoded ideas of loyalty to family, tribe or nation, no longer constrained by ideals of motherhood, morality or Godhead, capital is free to find the cheapest source of labour and the cheapest way of replacing that labour, whether by natural replenishment or migration. For capital, the abolition of slavery and segregation in the US and apartheid in South Africa were progressive measures which turned "white" capital into unencumbered global capital, capital pure and simple, free to use the cheapest source of labour wherever it might be found. The same is true in New Zealand, where the cheapest migrant labour is now extensively employed in the nation's most lucrative primary industry, dairy farming, and a wide range of service industries.
Employment equality for women had the same result of a producing a new, cheaper and generally more compliant source of labour, thus tending to reduce the cost of all labour, while increasing the size of the market in domestic products and services, transport, childcare and care of the aged, even extending to such marginal, though highly lucrative areas as fertility, abortion and surrogate birthing services. The move by major US companies to freeze the eggs of female employees of child-bearing age clearly demonstrates that gender equality is there to serve the interests of capital. Women in this situation are manifestly ambivalent. They deny their natural instinct to procreation in the interests of a career which is in part a matter of choice and in part, often the larger part, imposed by economic circumstance and social expectation. For capital, which has no interest in motherhood as such, there is no such ambivalence. Capital, in its pure form, is only concerned with profit, and working women generate profit.
In New Zealand, both Labour and National politicians spoke of their loyalty to the "British race" until a couple of decades following the end of the Second World War, and up to 1945 and beyond government policies were designed to serve the interests of people of British descent, both at home and abroad. By and large, capital in New Zealand shared that sense of duty and obligation to persons of the British race. However all that changed in the last quarter of the twentieth century. First state and capital expanded their patronage to include persons of European descent generally, and then abandoned all loyalties based on nationality or race.
The opening of New Zealand to large-scale Asian immigration in the twenty-first century on the surface marked the end of racial prejudice and discrimination, but the "celebration of racial diversity" does not go deep. The more telling lesson to be drawn from the mass immigration of non-European peoples is that the New Zealand state and capital have repudiated any common interest with or obligation to the labour force. Capital believes in "racial equality" not for its own sake, and not out of any higher morality, but as a purely as means to obtain the cheapest possible source of labour.
In a capitalist society, equality is synonymous with commodification. Capital seeks ways to overcome distinctions of skill, which stand in the way of commodification of labour and give which power to the guilds and even to the individual worker who can demonstrate technical superiority. This process is seen even in the pre-market institutions of learning, where under the NCEA scheme the state set out to categorise the outcomes of vocational training (and even generic education) as "Competent" or "Not yet competent" with the obvious intention of transforming whole ranks of workers from individuals possessing a range of unequal abilities to units of labour each the exact equal of the next. There are some new areas of work, such as computer technology, scientific research, the arts and so on where this approach does not work, and some old areas of work, such as law, medicine and so on where its application is not yet permitted by the social interest groups concerned. However even in these areas the signs are that degrees of commodification of labour are both possible and are being achieved in practice. If or when all humanity finally achieves "equality" within the capitalist definition of the term, it is not at all clear what meaning will attach to the word "humanity".
In fact, we will never reach that point of complete equality under capital, for the reason that capital does not exist as a metaphysical force or transcendental reality. It is itself an attribute of human beings, and those who control capital have a vested interest in maintaining certain restricted and specific inequalities of income within a sub-section of those who are classically defined as "wage and salary earners". That group is the management class, which is the frequent butt of egalitarianist anger because of its vastly disproportionate earning power. Capital justifies this rather gross display of inequality on the one hand by arguing that the law of supply and demand holds true for management work, but when put to the point has been forced to come up with an alternative defence which suggests an absolute distinction between labour and management. Labour, capital argues, is a commodity, akin to a sack of flour or sugar or "dead fish", each of which consists of a vast number of identical products with an objectively determinable market price. . A manager on the other hand is unique individual whose market value, like the value of a particular and unique piece of real estate, can only be determined from what a buyer is willing to pay and a seller is willing to accept. This the "rental value" theory of management salaries, also known as the scarcity value theory of wages, which implies that for the purposes of employment some human beings are unique and others are mass commodities. There are no objective grounds on which it can be stated that some human beings - the managers of corporations - are unique individuals whose annual rental value extends to millions of dollars, while others - the unemployed - are bulk commodities with a market value of something less than the legal minimum wage. These distinctions exist only in the perceptions of the capitalist class. They have no intrinsic reality and the truth which they conceal is that management are not paid on the basis of their skills, but for their loyalty to capital. Seemingly exorbitant salaries are paid to those in the state service or private industry who are willing to eschew the normal moral obligations to one's fellow man and to serve the interests of capital without scruple. Like the gangster hitman, or the illicit drug dealer, whose skills are no greater than that of the average motor mechanic or vacuum cleaner sales person, the premium paid is for undertaking work which is morally objectionable to society as a whole.
Thus even while the vast mass society - men and women, white and black, old and young, people of all trades and occupations - are being driven towards ever greater degrees of "equality", within the state and economy as a whole the preservation of inequality is of crucial importance. Political and economic power are concentrated in fewer hands. Influence, through the mass media, is reserved to a shrinking number of individuals. More tellingly, those who hold wealth, power and influence can no longer claim, as they once could, to any kind moral or intellectual superiority. Politicians have become actors, actors become politicians, and "charisma" fills the void left by intellect, diligence and piety. Society becomes morally and intellectually impoverished. Millions of human beings function as commodities in the process of production and spectators in the circus of life while a relative handful whirl and dance or duck and dive on the global stage created by the institutions of the mass media.
Resolution of material inequality
Inequality may be mitigated by voluntary individual acts of charity, state taxes designed to redistribute a share of income from rich to poor, and the work of collective associations such as trade unions, tenants associations, consumer associations and such like which endeavour to raise the incomes of poorer sections of the population, and finally by socialist expropriation of wealth.
The fundamental condition for charity is a sense of moral obligation among the affluent classes. Charity depends on compassion, which in turn depends on fraternity or "the brotherhood of man", quasi-religious concepts which, however, have no strong foundation in New Zealand's predominantly liberal secular society. Philanthropy also has limited scope in New Zealand, largely due to the colonial mentality of the wealthy classes. While some choose to share their wealth with the less fortunate, many more remove themselves and their booty to the centres of empire - Sydney, London, New York, Honululu or one of the capitals of Europe - at the earliest opportunity.
Taxation is most commonly proposed means of restoring balance to the national distribution of income. The "New Zealand Herald" supplement "The Business" 24 October 2014 carried an article by Brian Fallow "Wealth gap goes mainstream" concluding ".. in capitalist economies wealth will become more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands unless policy makers intervene". (Note however Fallow actually appears to favour a redistribution of income rather than wealth). Tax revenues may be redistributed through superannuation, unemployment, working family and sickness benefits, housing supplements or the unconditional basic income proposed by Gareth Morgan. As an alternative to taxation, income may be re-distributed by wage regulation ( the legal minimum wage or proposed minimum living wage) or collective bargaining. Regulation and bargaining however do not assure greater equality, and they could conceivably have the reverse effect of increasing material inequality in society.
Fallow, and most commentators on the left, appear to believe that state intervention is the only feasible option. However the difficulty for those like Fallow is thatl the machinery of state is actually controlled by politicians of the centre-right, insist that private welfare, and state sponsored re-distribution of income, is the best and most effective solution to the problems of inequality.
Even worse, from the egalitarian viewpoint, both private and public (tax based) charity are discouraged by the widely promulgated doctrine of "moral hazard", which essentially teaches that private charity and state welfare negate the motive and the will to provide for one's own needs through one's own efforts, and which is widely promoted in this country. There is a morsel of truth to the doctrine of moral hazard. It is the hope or actuality of private charity and state intervention which deters the working class from taking its fate into its own hands. But the "intervention of the policy makers" in favour of greater material equality is an unlikely scenario. The state opposes egalitarianism in principle. There are extreme salary differences within the state and local government, and state servants as a whole have a privileged status with respect to wage workers in the private sector. Thus there is little chance that either state intervention or individual or corporate philanthropy will lead to greater of social equity in New Zealand.
The most radical solution to the problem of material inequality is forcible expropriation of wealth. There are two problems associated with wholesale expropriation. First, it invariably provokes resistance. Second, there is no assurance that once expropriation has been effected, the assets will be effectively managed. From a pragmatic point of view, expropriation of wealth is only justified when it can be convincingly demonstrated that wealth, or capital, will be better managed by new owners, and the resistance to the change of ownership can be effectively nullified.
Popular attitudes to equality
People are concerned with their own situation and their own survival. Generally, they don't fret about inequality as such. All pay lip service to equality, but those who have achieved affluence, by whatever means, manage to convince themselves that their situation testifies to their superior qualities, while the ranks of aspirants below believe also believe in their own superior qualities, albeit as yet unrecognised. In a secular society, where people do not ascribe their good or bad fortune to the will of God, they naturally attribute it to their own personal merits. Meanwhile, most of those in the lower ranks are not convinced that they are in any sense the equals of those who rule over them, and for that reason alone they do not rebel against the system. So long as they and their families can survive they will acquiesce to any regime, irrespective of how unequal or unfair it may be. New Zealanders are a passive and pragmatic people, and even when conditions verge on the desperate.they tend not to engage in the kind of mass resistance commonly seen in France and other European states.
The ideal of equality is not deeply entrenched in the New Zealand psyche. Most New Zealanders pay lip service to the ideal, but in truth see themselves as either inferior or superior the mass of the population. These perceptions reflect the material conditions of their lives, and perceptions will only change with the material conditions. The equality of the French revolution, the equality of the estates, of nobles, priests and commoners and the monarch himself, was brought first by the rising economic power and importance of the third estate, second by its developing forms of social organisation independent of the existing state institutions, and third by the bloody violence of the revolution itself. Without these three developments, the ideal, or metaphysical principle of the equality of the masses would never have seen the light of day in France or anywhere else in the modern world. In a nutshell, equality must assume some real form before it becomes accepted as an over-arching ideological principle.
Wilkinson and Pickett have shown an association between income inequality and a range of recognised social evils, but they have failed to show that these evils are caused by inequality, or that the promotion of some form of state intervention designed to even out personal or household incomes would is a politically viable option, given the climate of public opinion in capitalist nations over the past thirty years.
Wilkinson and Pickett imply that income inequality is the cause of social ills such as drug use, mental illness, obesity, general ill-health, educational failure, crime, violence and solo parenting which would be mitigated by a greater degree of income equality. They postulate that the link between inequality and social ills is psychological stress. People see that they are not equal in wealth, income or power, therefore they feel stressed, are increasingly prone to anxiety and narcissism, behave abnormally and suffer illness. Wilkinson and Pickett offer little evidence to support this hypothesis, which is inherently problematic. They acknowledge that while the inequality/social ills correlation applies between states and nations it does not hold true between neighbourhoods within nations. "What matters" they argue "is the extent of inequality right across society". Thus they are suggesting that the stress arises not from a sense that we are unequal to our neighbours, in, say, Mt Roskill, but because we are conscious of the inequality between ourselves and those who live in Otara on the one hand, or Remuera on the other. That itself is a questionable proposition in need of supporting evidence. It overlooks the fact that local communities tend to share a common culture, which could better explain why inequality does not necessarily find expression in social dysfunction, and equality is not necessarily an indicator of social well-being at the local level. For example many large cities have a student quarter, a red-light district, and areas where illicit drug use is prevalent. Such areas may have a relatively even income distribution - generally at the lower end of the scale - and yet they will record high rates of social dysfunction. On the other hand there are areas with vibrant places of worship, extensive sports facilities, and "good" schools. People who value such facilities and the community values which attend them will gravitate to, or remain in such areas, and, so far as they are able, they will do so regardless of income level. Thus "good" areas may have relatively high income inequality along with a relatively high level of social well-being. The inequality/social dysfunction model breaks down at the local level because local communities tend to be culturally homogeneous. People move to or remain in areas where they find like-minded others, or they are strongly influenced by the culture and values of the community in which they happen to reside, so the association between inequality and social dysfunction breaks down or dissipates at the local level. Local areas may have high dysfunction and high equality, low dysfunction and low equality, low dysfunction and high equality, or high dysfunction and low equality, depending on the prevailing local culture.
At the national level, however, there will also be a dominant culture which determines both the distribution of incomes and the distribution of local community values. Liberal secular capitalist societies with extremely uneven income distributions tend to separate into geographic areas based on class - ghettos plagued by crime, violence, drug use, obesity, mental illness and broken families on the one hand and gated communities with a relatively lower measure of social ills. These communities will tend to be culturally and socially homogeneous. Some (the richer areas) will be stable and others (the poorer areas) will be dysfunctional. The exceptions will be those communities in which the ethos of liberal capitalism is resisted by other cultural values, such as Maoritanga, Christianity, Islam or traditionally conservative working class values. These traditional cultures counter the anxiety and narcissism engendered by secular liberalism, provide a degree of consolation, companionship and security, and discourage self-destructive behaviours such as violence, drug and alcohol use and excessive eating. But generally speaking, secular liberalism capitalism is the dominant ethos, creating gross inequality of income and severe social problems among the lower classes, as Wilkinson and Pickett correctly point out.
This analysis suggests that culture is the key to curing social dysfunction. Gross material inequality is a consequence of liberal secularism, along with all the other social ills listed by Wilkinson and Pickett. It is not itself the root of all evil. Imposing equality by fiat - even if it was politically possible, which I do not believe it is - would not solve the problem. Social problems must be resolved in the same way that they were brought about - by a change of culture. Resolution of social ills and re-imposition of a moral order will in turn create greater degrees of social and economic equality. Wilkinson and Pickett effectively tell the poor that their social problems are caused by factors outside their control, through inequality causing stress resulting in dysfunctional behaviour. The alternative proposition is that the poor can choose their own values and behaviours, and by choosing wisely can become at least the social equals of the affluent classes. They need not be slaves to any mathematically derived social determinism.
Wilkinson and Picket also fail to consider other less politically correct explanations for the relative inequality of nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Portugal when compared to nations such as Finland, Sweden, Norway and Japan. The unequal states are globally oriented, ethnically diverse former imperial powers such as Britain and France or, in the case of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, nations which have grown up in close association with imperialism. It is an irony of history that the nations which were once the most equal in the world and leaders to all others in that and many other respects, but it is no anomaly. All modern empires have followed the path of Rome, starting out as democratic, nationalist republics or ethnically homogeneous constitutional monarchies. The foundation of empire requires a people of remarkable quality: virtuous, free, independent, courageous, resolute and egalitarian. Such were the citizens of the Roman republic, the British after the Great Rebellion, the French after the revolution and the Americans following the war of independence. These nations built up a stock of moral capital, a set of entrenched ideas about the individual's obligations to God and Man. But empire saps all the moral qualities and virtues that made it possible, and it dilutes the culture and identity of the people who brought it into being. In Britain, the puritan revolution lost ground to high church Anglicanism, monarchy and empire. The United States departed from the principles of the pilgrim fathers to embrace the pursuit of happiness as its defining value. The French, whose revolution was secular from the beginning (although arguably having historical origins in the Huguenot religious movement), degenerated into Bonapartist imperialism with extraordinary rapidity. Once deprived of its moral system democratic capitalism relapses into constitutional monarchy or progresses to Bonapartism and imperialism in the course of which it consumes its store of moral capital to the point of exhaustion at which the western democracies have presently arrived. Empire ends in the rule of commerce, bureaucracy, the detached brutality of military governors, the amorality of mercenary armies, mass movements of populations, opulence for the wealthy, bread and circuses for the imperial proletariat, moral decline for all and the debasement of culture. To look at the most unequal societies in the world today is to look at the detritus of empire.
It is no coincidence that the most unequal societies are immigrant societies, either former colonies with immigrant Anglo-Saxon majorities (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States, Singapore) or imperial homelands with immigrant coloured minorities as a result of the reverse flow of migration that attends the current phase of financial imperialism in the United Kingdom, France and other European nations, in which the link between nation and empire has been finally severed. The death of empire begins at its extremities, and its final desperate death throes the empire retreats to the centre. The home market is expanded by bringing in cheap labour and capital from the outskirts of empire. In those colonies which had functioned as extensions of the imperial homeland, the same is true. For example New Zealand's most profitable industry, dairy farming, now depends to a significant degree on the labour of immigrants from the "third world" who work for the minimum legal wage, or less. On the other hand the states which have no historically recent involvement in imperial projects remain nationalist, ethnically homogeneous and egalitarian. Furthermore, logical connections can be drawn between imperialism, ethnic diversity and material inequality on the one hand, and nationalism, ethnic homogeneity and material equality on the other. That association between ethnic homogenity and equality on the one hand, and immigrant societies and inequality on the other, is not causal. To determine the causes of inequality we need to look deeper, into culture, ideology and theology.
While imperialism, globalism and ethnic diversity may be implicated in rising material inequality, it would be drawing a long and amoral bow to suggest that inequality could be mitigated by, for example, isolationism or a programme of ethnic cleansing. To determine the cause of a phenomenon, one needs to ask the question "Which factor, if removed from the equation, would lead to a significant change in the outcome?". In the case of material inequality, there is an obvious answer. Inequality has grown as the sense of personal moral obligation has declined. Ethnic diversity has been a factor in that decline, because, notwithstanding the advent of formal racial equality, nations such as the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Portugal have built their wealth on systems of racial exploitation and the principle of "divide and rule", and neither the previously dominant white races nor the previously subordinate coloured races feel any particular moral obligation to their newly "equal" partner races. Until the nineteen-sixties the mass of white New Zealanders were united in the belief that they were an integral and largely unadulterated part of the "British race". That racial belief underpinned the general sense of social obligation which in turn gave rise to concepts of fairness and social equity. In the late twentieth century racial purity gave way to racial diversity, social obligation succumbed to the advance of social and economic liberalism, and material inequality increased dramatically. A similar pattern was followed in the US, UK and Australia, where racial diversity, economic and social liberalism, and increasing material inequality progressed hand-in-hand.
Social obligation itself is the shadow of a more deeply rooted sense of moral obligation which historically arises out of religious systems. The more fundamental cause of rising inequality of income, poor educational performance, single parents, drug use, and a range of bad health outcomes - all the social evils described by Wilkinson and Pickett - is a decline in the sense of moral obligation among both the capitalist and working classes. The fundamental cause of gross inequality of wealth and income is immorality. Usury, profiteering, exploitation of all kinds, sloth, gambling, the liquor and tobacco industry and the illicit drug trade all contribute to the rise of the few at the expense of the many.
The affluent classes can reverse the rising tide of inequality by practicing the moral virtues of temperance, self-denial, generosity of spirit and charity. However it lies in the power of the poor to remedy their situation irrespective of the moral state of the affluent classes. They can ameliorate most if not all of the social evils listed in "The Spirit Level" by their own independent action. Personal abstinence (from alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food, pre-marital sex, generally unhealthy lifestyles, gambling and usury) and compassion for others are feasible options which would mitigate the social ills, and improve the economic position, of the working class. It follows that the solution to the "problems of inequality" is the restoration of moral values in either the capitalist class - leading to change from above, including a fairer distribution of wealth and income - or the working class, leading to change from below, which would bring with it the prospect, if not the inevitability, of an anti-capitalist revolution.
Liberals will have particular difficulty in accepting that morality provides the only means by which contemporary capitalism can be effectively confronted and destroyed, because for the past century the main task of liberalism has been to unseat "morality" and to put "freedom" in its place. To the typical liberal, "morality" is tainted by association with religion, and is the antithesis of the formal "freedoms", "human rights" and "equality" which are the defining values of liberalism. Sir Edmund Thomas has declared "The banner under which this cause could march, I have come to believe, is the banner of human rights". Liberalism marching under the banner of human rights, has brought us to this point, and nothing will change until society leaves off its obsessive and pusillanimous concern for human rights - which include the right to shamelessly exploit workers, tenants, debtors and consumers - and takes up the more magnanimous cause of moral obligation. To the best of my knowledge there is no metric for moral obligation, and hence Wilkinson and Pickett and others following their methodology can not account for, or even recognise the crucial role which it plays in maintaining or restoring a degree of social and economic equality. Yet, whereas Wilkinson and Pickett struggle vainly to show how inequality can give rise to social ills, the logical connections between moral obligation and social goods, including economic equality, are clear and numerous.
Wilkinson and Pickett cite an experiment which demonstrates the innate human tendency to seek and expect fairness, equity and a measure of equality in the way in which goods are distributed between individuals. The experiment also demonstrates that there is a countervailing tendency to seek a position of advantage over others - a point which is glossed over by Wilkinson and Pickett, but will be eagerly taken up by protagonists of the free market. However the most interesting aspect of the experiment is the clue that it gives as to how the conflict between the desire for superiority and the expectation of equality can be resolved. In the experiment, conflict between desire of the powerful person and the expectations of the powerless person is finally resolved by the disadvantaged and powerless person abandoning the game. Such a resolution is only possible where the disadvantaged person can regard the game as something of less than fundamental importance. In "real" life, if the powerful person retains nine-tenths of the loaf for himself, giving the other person the option one tenth of the loaf or nothing (mere hunger coupled with a sense of injustice or absolute starvation), how would the powerless person react? Normally, the powerless person would accept the tenth of a loaf with a sense of grievance, and wait until fortune turns in his favour. However there is another "real-world" response to material injustice which more closely follows the tendency of players in the experiment to "walk away from the game". The condition for this response is that the powerless must believe that the material goods at stake are of lesser importance than the principle of equality - in other words, that the system under which social goods are distributed is not fundamentally "real". That simple formula belies a complex psychological state, in which the powerless must believe that there is some reality greater than that represented in the game of the material world. Effectively, this resolution depends on the abandonment of material reason, as witnessed in long and bitter industrial strikes, wars of attrition and extended mutually exhausting litigation where common sense might suggest unconditional surrender by one side or the other would be a most beneficial to the interests of both. Religious "extremists" who are willing to die for their faith are another, purer manifestation of the human capacity to put aside all thoughts of material or worldly interests in order to defend or promote principles which ultimately reduce to a sense of equity and justice. That in a nutshell is what is required in order to break the grip of the powerful few on the powerless mass of society, and that is why the leaders of the western world are so alarmed by the apparent rise of fundamentalist Islam. The Islamists have "walked away from the game". They are no longer susceptible to material blandishments or material reason. They are willing to make the "ultimate sacrifice" and die for their cause. They are, to use the term from Wilkinson and Pickettt, engaged in the "altruistic punishment" of western capitalism. The exploited, deprived and oppressed of the world do not need to become radical Muslims in order to rectify their situation, but paradoxically they need to understand that approximate material equality is not the most important thing in life before they can restore it as the normal social condition. That generally, although not necessarily, implies some sort of religious belief, or at least a conviction that there is some higher principle that cannot be subsumed in the calculus which is based on material self-interest. The Argentinian Marxist Che Guevara appeared to have something of that conviction, which may explain both the circumstances of his death and the phenomenon of his enduring influence and influence upon left-wing radical activists long after the legacy of the more rational exponents of Marxist ideology has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
If the working class over time assumes its proper role as moral leader of society, and the capitalist class remains wedded to self-interest and corrupt practice, then the social order will rupture, but if in a concurrent process the capitalist class were to successfully reform itself, then capitalism might survive in more sustainable form for the indefinite future. It should not have escaped notice that in the four societies categorised as "most equal" by Wilkinson and Pickett - Finland, Japan, Norway and Sweden - moral obligation is a well-accepted principle which can be reasonably attributed to their ethnic and religious homogeneity. In ethnically diverse post-colonial or imperial societies, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, a sense of moral obligation based on common racial interest is uncommon, and when it does occur it is divisive. These states are also religiously diverse and formally secular. That is to say that in those countries which have evolved out of the Anglo-American imperial system moral obligation has ceased to function effectively as a society-wide phenomenon, resulting in gross inequality and a host of other social ills. The populations of these states may eventually develop into a new homogeneous racial type, but that is a process which will take centuries, and they will never return to their pre-imperial states of racial homogeneity. Therefore the only solution to their problems lies in a new expression of moral and social obligation which transcends ethnicity and religious persuasion.
"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" - click here to read the republican article
Wilkinson, R and Pickett K. The Spirit Level: Why more equal
societies almost always do better. Allen Lane 2009
Rashbrooke, M, ed. Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. Bridget Williams Books 2013