Sunday, 30 January 2011

A convenient truth

This week's article is a guest post from Martin Wilkinson, of Muswell Hill Local Quaker Meeting. Martin will be leading a course at Woodbrooke on this topic, this coming weekend, 4-6 February.
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Economic inequality, of the sort we find in Britain, is very bad for us all. For our personal health and for the health of our society.

This truth, established by years of research and increasingly known to Friends through the Salter Lecture at the 2009 Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering in York, is presented in the book The Spirit Level – why more equal societies almost always do better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The other side of the coin is, of course, that in more equal countries people are healthier and happier.

If income in Britain were as equal as it is in Japan or Sweden, we could expect to halve the number of murders and the incidence of obesity, cut the level of mental illness, reduce prison numbers and teenage births to less than one third of their present level, and almost double the number of people who feel they can trust most other people. Additionally, there would be significant improvements to levels of crime and drug-taking, to school achievement and many other social indicators.

So, why is this 'convenient'? Because it comes just as we fully realise that we can’t go on as we are, that free market economics have led us into financial disaster, and that the unthinking quest for economic growth is incompatible with keeping the planet in a fit state for people and the living environment.

The Spirit Level research has many helpful things to say.

First: it shows that greater equality of income in a country has huge social and health benefits; and similarly it shows that economic growth – in any country as rich as Britain – does no good at all. For the sake of the planet we have to realise that we cannot look to growth to solve our problems; and now we discover that growth was not worth pursuing anyway. But there is hope, because going for a fairer distribution of income would make us all healthier and happier, and would go a long way to solve the problems that feature in news headlines every week.

Second: the research shows that bigger economic differences between people create greater anxiety about status, and that is a major driver of excessive consumption. People use shopping, and possession of new and prestigious things, to shore up their self-esteem. Retail therapy indeed. In more equal societies there is less pressure to consume, and thus to work long hours to earn the money to buy all this stuff.

Third: more equal societies are more convivial. People are more ready to act for the common good, whether by recycling more, or giving more for development aid, or keeping to environmental agreements.

Fourth: this one is for Quakers and everyone else who has always known that greater equality is the best way for humans to live together: The Spirit Level research gives us firm scientific evidence, of a kind that could not have been produced until quite recently, to back up Quaker testimony on equality. It shows that people and communities thrive when there is respect and esteem for one another, but that wide social and economic differences lead to feelings of separation and disrespect that are harmful to ourselves and our society.

As Friends, we have a positive and exciting job to do: to understand this research, and how it connects with our testimony, and our understanding of the changes we need to make to lessen global warming and to care for the planet; and then to tell other people about it, and see how we and our politicians can change things for the better.

The Equality Trust has been set up to help people find out about the research. On the website you can find more information, a link to buy the book, and get ideas for action. In some places people are setting up local groups to share ideas and action. If you would like a speaker, contact Kathryn Busby at the Equality Trust;
or, for smaller or Quaker groups, contact Martin Wilkinson at

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An earlier version of this article appeared in Friends in Action, published by Quaker Peace & Social Witness, Friends House, 173 Euston Rd, London, NW1 2BJ

Thanks to Martin for this post.
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