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Bleeding Heart Liberals Proven Right: Too Much Inequality Harms a Society

The well being of whole societies is closely correlated not with average income level but rather with the size of the disparity of income between the top 20% and the bottom 20%.
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An important new book substantiates something progressives have long intuited. Published first in Britain and now headed for the United States, it's by epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson and health researcher Kate Pickett, and its title conveys its message: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Since the French Revolution, belief in the social benefits of egalitarianism has been central to progressive thought. Now Wilkinson and Pickett have produced some hard evidence for this plank in the liberal platform. They show conclusively that the well being of whole societies is closely correlated not with average income level but rather with the size of the disparity of income between the top 20% and the bottom 20%. Countries with smaller disparities like Norway, Sweden, and Japan (4 to 1) have fewer medical, mental, crime, and educational problems than countries like the Britain, U.S. and Portugal with higher disparities (7 or 8 to 1). France and Canada both have mid-range disparities (6 to 1) and place in the middle on health, education and psychological indicators. Even within American society, it's not the absolute income level of a state that determines its social well being, but rather the level of income disparity. Economic inequality and social dysfunction go hand in hand, and Wilkinson and Pickett have marshaled the evidence to make the case.

It's one thing to demonstrate the social benefits of egalitarianism, and another to spell out the underlying political, economic, and psychological mechanisms that explain these findings. Only as we understand how the level of income disparity affects social well being will we be able to generate the political will to undo the damage wrought by gross inequality.

Dignity and Its Enemy--Rankism

An explanation of the social dysfunction associated with large income disparities can be organized around the notion of rankism. Rankism is defined as a generalization of the familiar isms and encompasses them all. Specifically, in the same way that racism insulted the dignity of blacks, and sexism was an affront to the dignity of women, so, too, rankism is behavior that diminishes human dignity--black or white, female or male, gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, poor or rich, etc.

Rankism is the abuse of power attached to rank. A difference of rank alone does not cause indignity, but abuse of rank invariably does. Put simply, rankism is what somebodies may do to nobodies. But just as not all whites were racists, so too not everyone of high rank is a rankist.

Therefore, rankism, not rank differences, is the source of indignity. Indignity causes indignation, and indignation takes its toll either on the health of the individual who must contain it or it manifests as withdrawal or anger/aggression.

Rankism functions socially in the same way that racism does. No one doubts any longer that racism cemented in large, self-perpetuating income disparities between the white majority and black victims of slavery and segregation. In a parallel way, rankism marginalizes the working poor, keeping them in their place while their low salaries effectively make the goods and services they produce available to society at subsidized prices. This process, whereby the most indigent Americans have become the benefactors of those better off, is vividly described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler depicts the less fortunate as disappearing into a "black hole" from which there is virtually no exit. As class membranes become ever less permeable, resignation, cynicism, and hostility mount.

In the economic realm, the market mechanism, at least when it's working, functions to limit abuses of power, but political arrangements can trump the market. Large enough disparities in economic power may be used to influence politics so that laws and regulations perpetuate the economic gap.

Once established, economic inequality, if it is steep enough, also perpetuates exploitation because it imprisons the poor in their poverty. When missing a single paycheck means homelessness, people are not likely to demand better wages or working conditions. As Rev. Jim Wallis says, "Poverty is the new slavery."

There is another important reason that eightfold factors in wealth disparity cause more social distress than factors of four. When the top 20 % are eight times better off than the bottom 20 %, far more people are vulnerable to rankism because people in the middle quintiles are also separated from the top and bottom quintiles by significant differences in economic status and power. Instead of being confined within a narrower spectrum (characterized by, say, a disparity factor of four or five), people are spread out over a broader economic range. When the first (poorest) quintile is further from the top (richest) quintile, so, too is the second quintile further from the fourth, and the third from the first and the fifth. These larger differences in economic power make possible more abuse. Economic gaps soon become dignity gaps. As rankism gains ground, more people experience its indignities and humiliations, and these individual wounds compound into illness and social dysfunction.

Dignity is to the identity what food is to the body--indispensable. By confirming our identity and affirming our dignity, respect and recognition provide assurance that our place in the group is secure. Absent periodic and appropriate validation, our survival feels at risk. Without proper recognition, individuals may sink into self-doubt and subgroups are marginalized and set up for exploitation.

Dignity and recognition are inseparable. We can't all be famous, but fortunately recognition is not limited to the red carpet. We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek it, or from whom it is otherwise withheld. Once aware of the deleterious effects of "malrecognition," we can act against it as we now take steps to prevent malnutrition.

Like malnutrition, malrecognition lowers the body's resistance to disease and reduces life expectancy. For most people, just the opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the world is enough to stifle the indignation that accumulates from exposure to indignities caused by rankism. This means that malrecognition, like its somatic counterpart, is a preventable and treatable malady. To increase the supply of recognition we need only discern people's contributions, acknowledge them appropriately, and compensate them equitably. When the average compensation of the richest 20 % exceeds that of the poorest 20 % by factors greater than four or five, the poor experience this as unfair, unjust distribution of recognition. The deleterious consequences of malrecognition manifest in the familiar array of social problems tracked in The Spirit Level--mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy, an elevated homicide rate, a shorter life expectancy, and lower educational performance and literacy rates.

More than either liberty or equality, people need dignity. In contrast to libertarian or egalitarian societies, a dignitarian society is one in which everyone, regardless of role or rank, is treated with equal dignity. The findings reported in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better suggest that as societies become more dignitarian they will, in the words of the subtitle, "do better."

A startling example of this proposition comes from, of all places, our prison population where indignity and malrecognition are endemic. Recent work done under the auspices of The Center for Therapeutic Justice in Virginia indicates that the recidivism rate for inmates who serve their sentences in a dignitarian community drops from 50 % to 5 %.

Social Isolation and Depression

In explaining their findings, Wilkinson and Pickett put the emphasis on the lack of trust fostered by large wealth disparities. Put the other way round, the connectedness experienced in dignitarian communities is the equivalent of social oxygen.

Some thirty years ago a physician (Wolf) and a sociologist (Bruhn) teamed up to explain why, in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, there was a group of poor Italian immigrants whose health and welfare were vastly better than their neighbors. After a twenty year study of immigrant families in Roseto, and a comparable study in a nearby, non-immigrant town, they found that health and welfare were dependent on what they called cohesion, the opposite of isolation and the antithesis of distrust. As the younger generation adopted American ways of geographic and status mobility, their health and welfare levels decreased to the level of the neighbors.

In addition to directly affecting health and welfare, disconnection has an effect on the emotions. Just as being closely connected with others leads to authentic pride, so disconnection leads to shame and humiliation. The isolated person is apt to feel rejected, if not completely worthless, and live in a more or less permanent state of shame.

One way of defending against the shame of malrecognition is to withdraw, sometimes all the way into the isolation of depression. Such withdrawal then leads to further isolation, which in turn compounds the rejection by the community and accelerates the downward spiral. Again, malrecogntion compounds into social dysfunction as confirmed in this eye-opening book.


In addition to caring for the weak, humans are still capable of predatory behavior towards those lacking the protection of social rank. Rankism is the residue of more overt predatory practices of the past. Now that rankism has a name, the miasma of malrecognition is visible and we are in a position to begin rooting it out. Rooting out rankism, like overcoming racism, is a multi-generational undertaking. Despite the enormity of the task, we are likely to look back on the 21st century as marking an epochal transformation from a predatory to a dignitarian era. Disallowing rankism betters human well being in the same way that disallowing racism and sexism improve the lives of blacks and women. The hard evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett have provided demonstrates the benefits of dignitarian societies and validates the egalitarian instinct that has long been a mainstay of the liberal creed.