The Spirit Level reaches NZ - why freedom and equality are kin

In which I'm perplexed why people are so afraid of equality and compassion, and reflect on freedom and the filthy rich Westpac CEO, all because I've finally got around to reading The Spirit Level

It's to ideological politics what An Inconvenient Truth is to climate change - The Spirit Level has put the cat among the political pigeons over the past year or two, prompting books, websites and debunking from all quarters. And this week it's spreading its wings of controversy over New Zealand.

Emeritus Professor Richard Wilkinson - and epidemiologist and co-author of The Spirit Level - spoke by skype at Victoria University's policy forum titled 'Does Inequality Matter?' and will be interviewed by Guyon Espiner on Q+A this Sunday.

Wilkinson is an older academic who'd like to be more retired than he is, so what's all the fuss about? Essentially, Wilkinson and his co-author Prof. Kate Pickett pulled together peer-reviewed research from around the globe and found that when they looked at mature, developed democracies "almost all the problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies".

In other words, the more equal a society is, the happier, healthier and less stressed everyone is. And better educated. And less likely to be a victim of crime. The list goes on. (We've discussed this before on Pundit - here).

The authors reckon no other factor explains how the wealthiest societies in history are racked with anxiety, falling health and education statistics, and rising crime rates. In the past - and in developing countries - greater wealth means a greater quality of life. They argue that no longer works.

"We are the first generation to have to find new answers to the question of how we can make further improvements to the real quality of human life". What should we turn to if not to economic growth?"

Of course parties of the left have found new champions, while many (but by no means all) on the right are spitting tacks. You can see the kind of fuss caused on Kiwiblog and Not PC. Lots of debunking is being attempted.

But the ideologists protest too much. Wilkinson and Pickett actually say in the book that their conclusions don't necessarily mean big government and lots of redistribution. They don't care how you get there, they just say that the evidence suggests if you can create a more equal society, the social outcomes will be better.

The two most equal countries listed, Japan and Sweden, have taken very different paths to achieve their relatively low gap between rich and poor (still with the richest being about 4 times as rich as the poorest, so hardly equality nirvana, but way better than New Zealand with about seven times and Singapore with nine times).

Swedish governments have been quite interventionist; Japan much less so. The market in Japan has somehow kept pay rates closer together, so why the frothing Spirit Level critics are so quick to champion our type of free-market ahead of Japan's type of free-market, I don't know.

Still, the implications do seem to err on the side of the collective good over individual freedoms. Indeed, it raises prickly questions about just what freedom means and who gets to claim that word.

The new right claims that small government = freedom and in the past generation have come to own that idea and all it stands for. Just look at the Tea Party in the US right now and the political narrative on Fox.

But in times gone by the left had staked a claim for the word and idea as well, arguing that poverty is the opposite of freedom, and anything done to lift people out of poverty, to give them choices and equal opportunities to the wealthy was to fight for the cause of freedom.

In that same Fox-driven narrative, the right are realists, the left hippy-drippy idealists. But what struck me rading The Spirit Level this week was how it grappled with the grim reality of life. It looks honestly at the grimey limits of capitalism, recognising that in a world of finite resources and wealth, if some keep getting richer and richer, by definition that means others are not keeping up, or getting poorer.

And the new right mantra that the rising tide lifts all boats and that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps looks terribly naive and wildly optimistic. Even hippyish. Of course some people can, but there's no logic to assume that because the CEO of Westpac makes $5 million a year, we're all going to be better off.

The fascinating point that The Spirit Level argues is that the opposite is true. As the rich get richer and the gap with the poor grows, we're all worse off. Even the rich are sicker, sadder and less well educated in a less equal society, they say.

You might ask, but what about Rockefeller, Ford or Gates? They generated wealth for themselves and really did lift other boats by changing infrastructure in a massive way. But it's not the wealth that's crucial there, it's the disruptive technology. Many others have changed the world just as much, but died poor.

The Spirit Level talks about Ignaz Semmelweiss, who figured out that doctors washing their hands before surgery saved lives. He was mocked and committed suicide, but his idea lifted all kinds of other boats.

What I find hard to dispute is the idea that growing inequality builds barriers and diminishes community. We start to live in different worlds from one another and thus compassion becomes harder to generate.

The poor become "the other" to the rich, and the rich become "them" to the poor. The "we" is lost. It makes sense to me that we're all worse off when that happens.

In New Zealand we have gone from an egalitarian ethos to a national psyche dominated by individualist materialism. From being proud that everyone got a fair go and jack was as good as his master, we now find national pride more often in individual success stories.

It's not a simple question of "then, good"  and "now, bad". Or "individualism, bad" and collectivism ,good". But are we proud of our growing rate of inequality? Is it improving us? Creating more jobs? More health? More shared wealth? Is the Westpac CEO's success going to trickle down, really?

And are we really going to say that the changed ethos has no part to play in our low wage rates and our high debt, our crime rate and the fact we don't know our neighbours like we used to?

So the critics can pick apart the details all they want - maybe Denmark is an exception to the rule or the graph changes if you add or subtract a country. I'm just not sure what they're so scared of. Losing their wealth and power? Sacrificing some freedom over their money to give someone else some freedom? The "undeserving" being treated as well as they are?

Why get so wound up about others being equal with them (because these folk are always doing quite nicely, thanks very much)? I really don't get it.

I have questions about some of the claims made in the book, which we'll explore on Q+A, but I look at its central thesis that equality is good for us and, well, that seems like a no-brainer.

Check out Wilkinson for yourself on Sunday morning, 9am on One.