Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What’s Better about Being More Equal?

Bruce C. Wearne


August 14, 2009

Political debate about equality is never simple. In arithmetic, equality is one thing: 1 + 1 equals 2. But political arguments about equality are not so simple, as people in the US and other countries realize in their debates over all kinds of issues, including healthcare reform, bank bailouts, taxes, and economic recovery programs.

For some, equality is simply a matter of each person having the legal opportunity to become healthier, wealthier, or wiser; unequal outcomes don’t matter. For others, unequal outcomes are precisely the signs of danger for those who are not becoming healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

Research on different measures of equality and inequality can be illuminating. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), for example, made a study of 24 rich nations, comparing the “income gap” between the richest and the poorest within each country. The ratios were calculated by comparing the top 20 percent with the bottom 20 percent of incomes. The rankings showed Japan (3.4) and Finland (3.7) to be the most equal (the smallest gaps between rich and poor), while Australia (7), the UK (7.2), Portugal (8), the USA (8.5), and Singapore (9.6) are the most unequal. Canada (5.6) was ranked in the middle (12th).

A Harvard University project compared the income-gap differences among US states and found Alaska, Utah, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin as having smaller income gaps between the richest and the poorest compared to New York, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Connecticut with the largest gaps.

A separate UK study showed evidence that higher rates of health and social problems exist in countries where the income gaps are greater.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, found a strong correlation between the UNDP income-gap rankings and data from a list of eleven critical issues: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage births, and child well-being. On all eleven critical issues, they found conditions are substantially worse in societies judged by the UNDP rankings to be more unequal. The countries with less inequality (Japan, Finland) did consistently better than the countries with greater income inequality. Moreover, the study found that the health and social problems in societies with greater equality were more evenly distributed across the population. According to the authors, the data suggest that higher income-gap societies may also suffer from more status anxiety, less public trust, and greater overall insecurity.

Reliable data that measure dimensions of equality/inequality can tell us only so much, of course, and it is especially important not to read them as offering a single-dimensional causal explanation of what makes for better and worse societies. Nevertheless, these types of studies can help us reflect critically on the dynamics of our societies. International comparisons on a wide range of measures can also spur public policy reforms and open debate at home and abroad.

What citizens and governments need to reckon with is how to nurture public trust in government and other institutions of society so that reforms can take place in and through those institutions. Wise policy reforms require a weighing and measuring of relationships among many different dimensions of human responsibility, including family well-being, education, job opportunities, tax systems, and social and health-security insurances. Public policies should aim to uphold a truly equitable balance among the full range of human responsibilities, keeping both opportunities and outcomes in view. Humans, created in the image of God, are complex social creatures.

— Bruce Wearne
     Melbourne, Australia

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”