From Now on, Equality Needs to Be Our Organizing Principle

In the smoking rubble of market fundamentalism, we are all being
forced to rethink the principles that order our societies - and one
small, shining idea is rising from the wreckage. It is the idea of
human equality.

The need for us to return to this, our best and most basic instinct,
is spelled out in a new book by Professor Richard Wilkinson and Dr.
Kate Pickett called 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.'
It is the culmination of twenty-five years of scientific research. The
truths it contains provide us with a compass to rebuild our societies -
and a reason to be profoundly optimistic. There is a way we can make
our societies dramatically better - and the impulse to do it is
hard-wired into each of our brains.

It starts with a stark realization. For millennia, there was one
obvious and necessary way to improve human life: raise material living
standards. If you are hungry, you will be made a lot happier by food.
If you are thirsty, you will be made a lot happier by water. The human
impulse for self-improvement was simple: give us more, and give it to
us now. But we now know from reams of studies that once your basic
needs are met - once you pass the magic number of $25,000 a year -
something changes.

We carry on accumulating and accumulating, because it's what we've
grown to think will give us happiness, but it works less and less. And
after a while, this unhindered chasing of More More More by the very
richest begins to make us miserable - and corrodes some of the other
basics we need as humans.

One of our most basic psychological needs is for status - to feel
that we are a valued member of our tribe. We evolved in small, very
egalitarian tribes of hunter-gatherers, and have only lived outside
them for a few minutes in evolutionary terms. So when we feel our
status is threatened - or there is no way of becoming respected by the
rest of the tribe - we begin to malfunction in all sorts of ways.

Indeed, other than being chased by a wild animal or worrying that
our supplies of food, water and shelter will be cut off, nothing makes
humans more anxious than panic about our status. Endless clinical
trials show what happens to our bodies when we feel we are going to
lose our status and could end up being looked on as inferior. Our
bodies lock into a "fight-or flight" response, where our heart and
lungs work harder, our blood vessels constrict, and we burn up our
energy stores fast. Our systems flood with a hormone called cortisol.

If this lasts only a short period, it can be good for us: it helps
us escape that growling lion, or pull ourselves out of the wreckage of
a crashed car. But if it goes on for weeks or months, we begin to
suffer all sorts of dysfunction - as we'll see in a moment.

Yet we have built our societies on exaggerating this status panic -
and we have been ratcheting it up over the past thirty years. The more
unequal a society is, the more intense it becomes. Even if you slip to
the bottom in Sweden, it's not so very different from the top. But when
there is a long social ladder and the bottom rung means humiliation and
poverty, everyone at every rung feels a sweatier need to cling to their
place - and the society starts to go wrong. This isn't left-wing
speculation: it is an empirical fact.

Japan and Sweden are very different societies, but they are
consistently at the top of the charts for every indicator of social
success. They have low violence, low mental illness, low teenage
pregnancy, low drug addiction, low obesity, low prison populations,
high life expectancy, and high levels of friendship and trust. They are
economically highly equal societies. The US and Portugal are also very
different societies, but they are consistently at the bottom of the
charts. They are highly unequal societies. If you plot countries on a
graph, you see the causal relationships with striking clarity. Increase
inequality, and every one of these dysfunctions shoots up with it.

How can this be? When we are locked in stress, we get sicker. High
cortisol levels corrode our insides and massively increase the risk of
heart-attack. We eat more - and our bodies store fat differently. It
hugs them to our middles, rather than storing them lower down, in our
hips and thighs. We are far more likely to break down into depression
or mental illness, or to snap and attack somebody. James Gilligan - the
psychiatrist running the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard
Medical School - explains that acts of violence are "attempts to ward
off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation - a feeling that
is painful, and can even be intolerable or overwhelming." He adds that
he has "yet to see a serious act of violence that did not represent an
attempt to undo this 'loss of face.'"

And when we are locked in stress, we become more suspicious of the
people around us. In highly equal Sweden, 66 percent of people feel
they can trust their fellow citizens - and as a result have the highest
levels of friendship in the developed world. In highly unequal
Portugal, only 10 percent of the population trust the rest: see the
bars on the windows.

It can be easier to see how this model of stress and humiliation
affects us by looking at our evolutionary cousins. In a recent study,
scientists at the University of North Carolina took twenty macaque
monkeys, divided them into groups of four, and put them in separate
enclosures. In each little group, they formed hierarchies, with some at
the top, and some at the bottom. They then made it possible for the
monkeys to give themselves a dose of cocaine by pulling a lever. The
dominant monkeys took very little cocaine - while the subordinate,
humiliated monkeys took huge amounts. They were, in effect,
compensating themselves for being at the bottom of the pile with no way
out. Now think about the rates of drug addiction in Detroit, or South
Central Los Angeles, or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Our elites have adopted an ideology - the extreme inequality of
market fundamentalism - that simply doesn't suit our species. It makes
us sick and aggressive and anxious. This doesn't just affect the poor:
the studies show the disastrous effects of inequality run right up the

It doesn't have to be this way. By democratically taxing the rich
and using the money to lift up the poor, we can make life better for
all of us. Of course there must be some income differentials - but
nothing like our own grotesque rates. Plato suggested the richest
person should be allowed to earn fives times the wage of the poorest
person, which seems fair to me. The evidence is in, and it is plain: a
more equal society is a happier, safer, and healthier one. (The obvious
exception to this rule is Communist societies. They were incredibly
miserable: if equality is imposed by crazed tyrants, at the expense of
freedom, then it has none of these positive effects.)

Wilkinson and Pickett explain how the US would change over time if
we taxed and invested our way to the same levels of economic equality
as social democratic Sweden: "The proportion of the population feeling
they could trust others might rise by 75 percent - presumably with
matching improvements in the quality of community life; rates of mental
illness and obesity might similarly be cut by about two-thirds, teenage
birth rates could be more than halved, prison populations might be
reduced by 75 percent, and people could live longer while working the
equivalent of two months less a year."

It's a shining vision - and not utopian. It exists now in a free,
democratic country. Most Americans intuitively want it: over 80 percent
say the income gap is too high. It is only the undemocratic,
concentrated power of the wealthy that holds us up.

And there is another, even more sombre reason why we need to
democratically equalize our societies. We are now highly likely to face
a series of destabilizing and dangerous climate shocks. In his book 'Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Survive',
looks at the societies throughout history that have faced similar
shocks. The difference between the ones that died out and the ones that
survived was relative equality. If the elite stands far above the
population and can insulate itself from the effects of the shock - for
a while, at least - then the society doesn't make it through. We need
to reorganize ourselves now, while we can.

At the end of the failed age of market fundamentalism, the
long-suppressed democratic cry for equality is emerging once again. Its
glow should be at the core of how we move beyond this cold, cold

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