Inequality, 21st century enlightenment and the RSA


I started the day at a seminar held by Demos under the auspices of its Progressive Policy Forum. The seminar was worth attending for a background paper by Jonty Olliff-Cooper usefully summarising dimensions of equality and the impact of the Labour government.

In summary the findings are:

• Income inequality has stayed broadly neutral. This is the consequence of labour market effects which appear to drive higher inequality being cancelled out by redistribution by the Government. Most other developed countries have experienced rising inequality over the last two decades.      

• Increases in public spending have reduced inequality. As the paper states: ‘benefits in kind (such as health, education, transport and housing) more than double the average post-tax income of the bottom 20 percent of households’. In some policy areas, for example turning round failing schools or investing in deprived areas, Labour has particularly targeted public services for the poorest so this redistributive effect may be even greater.

• Inequality in wealth has grown markedly partly as a by-product of income inequality but also because of house price inflation.  

Looking forward, the picture is mixed at best. Tax changes currently being implemented will increase redistribution but labour market effects (in the context of higher unemployment) may continue to drive inequality. Despite all the blather about ‘efficiency savings’, public sector spending cuts are likely to impact more severely on poorer people. In relation to wealth, there are proposals from the Conservatives to reduce inheritance tax and from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to cut back on the Child Trust Fund (a policy explicitly aimed at giving all adults  a start in generating their own financial assets).

The other dimensions of this morning’s conversation were around public attitudes to inequality. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have undertaken focus groups which confirm a persistent finding from similar studies. The public is not particularly interested in equality as a policy goal but is much more exercised by what philosophers call ‘procedural justice’ – this is the idea of fairness in relation to the application of rules. So, if people are asked what is most unfair in society they are less likely to say poverty and exclusion and more to talk about illegal immigration and benefit cheating.

Which led me to make a link with a phenomenon I have mentioned before on this site. This is the contrast between our exaggerated sense of personal agency and our diminished sense of social agency. Poll after poll shows we tend to think that we, our family, and even our neighbourhood will do fine in the future but that society is falling apart.

There is, it seems to me, a parallel when it comes to fairness and morality. We are forgiving of ourselves, of our families and our friends but much harsher and more judgemental about strangers. We are like agony aunts when it comes to the frailties of our families and like Sun editorials when it comes to the weaknesses of strangers.

I believe that 21st century enlightenment requires us to reduce (even if we can never close) the intellectual and empathic gap between the personal and the social.  If this is to happen it will be in organisations (workplaces, charities, community associations) as these exist between the personal and the social.

An important function of progressive organisations is to provide spaces which allow us to bring personal feelings of agency and empathy into alignment with our social imagination. Combining ideas, social research and civic innovation, the RSA could and should be such an organisation.

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