February, 2010

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Economic Inequality and Social Division

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily links to a Boston Globe story on Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s UK book, The Spirit Level. The authors marshall persuasive evidence that in countries where income inequality is high, social conditions and general welfare suffer.

It is economic inequality, not overall wealth or cultural differences, that fosters societal breakdown, they argue, by boosting insecurity and anxiety, which leads to divisive prejudice between the classes, rampant consumerism, and all manner of mental and physical suffering.

The source of this anxiety, they argue, is status disparities and the inability of those of low means to achieve higher status. Ironically, their research shows that increasing wealth disparities lead to a more consumeristic society (and, we might add, increase the destructive pressure on that society):

We want bigger houses and more cars, not because we need them, but because we use them to express our status. Material goods are how we show the world we’re keeping up, and in a more hierarchical society that’s more important. Status competition becomes more intense, and that increases our need to consume.

A challenging and tempering thesis … if only we can heed the warning.