Based on thirty years of research by leading organisations, various universities and independent social scientists, the authors argue that inequality is the root cause of many of society’s ills.
They claim that if an affluent society suffers from one social disease – for example high levels of stress – you can be reasonably sure it will also have high rates of obesity, drug use, mental illness, imprisonment, violent crime, distrust, depression, and illiteracy. And the more unequal the society is, the higher the rate of those diseases. Although most of the evidence is centred on income inequality, they make a strong link between perceived social inequality (judging ourselves in relation to other people) and all the stress-related social diseases.
The authors emphasise that inequality doesn’t just affect the poor of society; the affluent are also adversely affected. To put that in a more positive way, reducing inequality also benefits the affluent members of society.
Most people think of equality in terms of income but it's very unlikely there will ever be a society in which everyone has the same income. At the beginning of board games like Monopoly every player has an equal amount of money but it isn’t long before that equality is upset. Some social analysts use equal opportunity to rate a society’s level of equality, which is certainly more practical than rating it by income.
The studies mentioned above show that, up to a point, money is very important for health and happiness but past that point it makes little difference to health or happiness. What then becomes important is perceived social equality, which is so delicate in a society obsessed with domination and competition in almost every area of daily life. The obsession with domination is seen in our parliamentary system and legal system, both of which set and reflect the adversarial nature of our culture in regard to conflict resolution and differences of opinions.
The obsession with competition is seen in sport, which has become unhealthy because of the high emphasis placed on winning. An alternative is for the emphasis to be on participation, or on the comradeship of team sport, or on the social side of individual sport. The harm caused by the attitude that ‘winning is everything’ comes out when elite athletes reveal their battles with depression or their thoughts of suicide to escape the pressure to be constantly winning.
Violence begets violence and what these studies reveal is that socio-economic inequality is actually a form of violence built into our social systems and this produces the violence we refer to as ‘social diseases.’ None of us are to blame for the system we were born into but each of us can do something to change the system. Our politicians are well aware of the studies linking inequality to all the social ills and they are also aware that social ills increase as inequality increases. Politicians can have the most influence on changing the system, simply by adopting policies and making laws that reduce the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. However, voters can put pressure on politicians to base their bid for power on their ability to come up with policies centred on reducing inequality. And the good news is that it appears we would all benefit from reversing the trend of ever increasing inequality.
An added bonus is that politicians can be held accountable and voters can more easily decide which party to vote for. If the socio-economic gap is decreasing under whatever party is in power, voters would know the government policies are working. If the gap is increasing, voters would know the policies are not working.