Monday, November 16, 2009

Understanding inequality

I have the sort of mind that likes organisation and categorisation, something that can bring clarity to arguments. This is the strength of a striking, though not original, essay on inequality by Göran Therborn, whose title certainly doesn't undersell its significance, The Killing Fields of Inequality.

His argument is that inequality is not an engine of growth, nor a natural feature of human societies, but a construct that is utterly dysfunctional, "destructive of human lives and of human societies" - "it is something that violates a moral norm of equality among human beings". Yes, ultimately his argument rests on a moral stance and, to my mind, this is welcome. Utility without ethics is the politics of, using Nye Bevan's cruel description of Hugh Gaitskell, the "desiccated calculating machine". Therborn uses a raft of utilitarian arguments, but there is no mistaking that he is writing about the real lives of real people and is angry.

The usefulness of his approach is that he differentiates between a number of arguments that are often conflated and confused. So, for example he deals with the distinction to be made between difference and inequality. The most important is that inequality can be abolished and, of course, the whole thrust of the essay is that it should be.

He divides inequality into three different types - vital inequality of life and health; existential inequality based on discrimination and status; and material inequality of wealth and resources, both in access to opportunities and in rewards. All are the product of clearly defined processes:
Inequality can be produced in four basic ways. First there is distantiation – some people are running ahead and/or others falling behind. Secondly there is the mechanism of exclusion – through which a barrier is erected making it impossible, or at least more difficult, for certain categories of people to access a good life. Thirdly, the institutions of hierarchy mean that societies and organisations are constituted as ladders, with some people perched on top and others below. Finally, there is exploitation, in which the riches of the rich derive from the toil and the subjection of the poor and the disadvantaged.
You can read the full article if you want to see how he elaborates on these themes and on the strategies involved in countering the effects of these processes. I would just like to make a few observations.

Firstly, he is attempting to show that the different types of inequality, such as inequality of opportunity and outcome, are not mutually exclusive phenomena that conflict, but are contingent upon each other and the products of the same processes. Secondly, I would extend that approach to argue that the often assumed choice between equality and liberty is a false one. The liberty of all is predicated on equality, something that was clearer to 19th Century libertarians than it appears to be to some of their 21st Century descendants. And finally, countering the insane rhetoric of the American right about Obama as "a socialist at the head of a gangster regime", he makes a telling point about social democracy:
...the recurrent success of the Nordic welfare states on a world capitalist list (with Finland on rung 6 and oil-rich Norway on 16 among 131 countries) certainly means that generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves, but as highly competitive participants in the world market. In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives. And the literally lethal effects of inequality make searching for them imperative.
I couldn't agree more.

1 comment:

Serious Implications said...

Michelle Bachman does not "strike fear" into the hearts of liberals in the U.S. as Paul Harris says.

She is a whack-job who will help ensure that centrist voters stick with Obama. She is facing a serious challenge next year and may well lose her seat.

Bachman and others like her would be even further behind without the help of journalists like Harris who inflate their significance and pollute our national dialog.