Two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, spent more than thirty years painstakingly examining why certain human societies live longer and healthier than others, the results of which are contained in their book, Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better.
After researching the social conditions of virtually every Western country, Wilkinson and Pickett discovered an astonishing statistic that ran through every country they’d examined: the more unfair any society — which is to say, economically unfair and hierarchical — the worse off everyone is, both rich and poor, in terms of virtually every social problem.
In countries with giant income disparity between the very rich and the very poor, both the most affluent and the very poorest suffer from higher rates of ill health, higher crime rates, mental illness, environmental problems, and violence.
Worse than ever before
Western countries in the main are at their most unequal in history. Our sense of taking and giving has been replaced by taking whatever you can get for you and yours alone. But in the main, that hasn’t improved our lot.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and many countries in Europe, with their vast differences between rich and poor, are among the worst off in virtually every social indicator compared with countries like Japan and Sweden, which have less wealth disparity in the population.
Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world with half the world’s billionaires, America has far and away the highest level of all social problems — crime, lack of education, mental illness, suicide, disease of all varieties — of twenty countries, and the United Kingdom is the third worst.
Although one in every thirty-nine Americans is a millionaire, one in seven, or 39.1 million Americans, live below the poverty line. One-quarter of all people in America have been diagnosed with mental illness — the highest percentage among the most advanced developed countries — compared to less than one in ten in Germany, Japan, and Spain.
Bad for our health
Although the United States spends nearly half the entire world’s expenditure on health, and has only 5 per cent of the world’s population, the fact remains that a baby born in the United States has a 40 per cent higher risk of dying during the first year than a baby born in Greece, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where the population makes half as much on average and the country spends half as much on healthcare. Furthermore, that Greek baby can expect to live 1.2 years longer than the American.
Fairness, like belonging, appears to be necessary to our survival.
The answer is not massive state intervention. Fairness indicators have nothing to do with the amount of public, governmental expenditure that aims to redistribute wealth and equalize society.
For instance, the state in the United States that reports the lowest level of social problems is New Hampshire, and New Hampshire has one of the lowest public expenditures of any state. New Hampshire simply does not have a huge disparity between the income of its inhabitants.
Our reaction to inequity has nothing to do with a need for sameness — a socialist-style, across-the-board equality. Throughout history, the fact that there is a wealthy group of individuals at the top of any society has not automatically made for revolution.
Poorer levels of society are usually only prompted to rise up in rebellion when conditions are manifestly unfair, such as when food is deliberately made scarce.
In the wake of the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, the fury that most ordinary citizens felt toward bankers and traders had nothing to do with income resentment but a deep and compelling sense of unfairness that investment houses like Goldman Sachs still paid record bonuses after the recession they had helped to create caused so many others to lose their jobs.
In Britain, Sir Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, unapologetically paid himself a £700,000 pension (about $1.05 million) despite the bank’s sustaining,under his stewardship, the largest corporate loss in history, requiring a £24 billion government bailout.
Shortly thereafter, aggrieved citizens attacked his Edinburgh villa and smashed his Mercedes S600. A statement sent to the Edinburgh Evening News read: “We are angry that rich people, like him are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute, and homeless.”
So how to we start creating a fair society? Creating all sorts of incentives to eliminate current rates of unfairness will be good for everyone’s health.