The following wonderful TED Talk is, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. In it, Richard Wilkinson begins, “You all know the truth of what I’m going to say. I think the intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been around since before the French Revolution. What’s changed is we now can look at the evidence — we can compare societies — more and less equal societies — and see what inequality does.” I couldn’t disagree more that we all know the truth; as a society, we are incapable of seeing the truth.
Wilkinson is mistaking himself and other like minded people who look at evidence and assuming that they represent the society over all. And it is funny that he would be giving this talk to the power elite at TED, because they above all don’t believe such things. Remember when Nick Hanauer gave his TED Talk about how the rich were not “job creators”? What happened was that the head of the lecture series decided not to release the video of the talk because it was thought to be divisive. “Divisive,” of course, is what the oligarchs that support TED Talks call anything that questions their position as the noble “free market” aristocracy.
The biggest intellectual problems stem from hidden assumptions. And over the course of my life, I have see the most pernicious assumption ossify into unquestioned truth. That assumption is that the economy is a kind of social Darwinian system that must be left as it is or else we will decay into a terrible world where everyone lives in poverty except the very top. We will become a third world economy — a “banana” republic. The idea that economies are artificial constructs that are never “natural” is anathema. And along with that goes the idea that the economy ought to be designed to work for everyone and not just the very top.
Richard Wilkinson shows that the more equal a country is, the better off its people are in pretty much any way that you can think of. What’s more, the more equal a society is, the better off the rich are. Rich people in equal societies live longer. So we have a situation where the rich should rationally want a more equal society. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of what they will work for. They more than anyone believe the big lie that the economy works the way it does because it must — because it is “natural.” And believing this lie flatters them: it says that in some objective way they are better than most people. They never grapple with the idea that they just happen to be doing well in our society because they happened to have been born into a society that rewards what they are good at. Warren Buffett is one of the few who gets it, “I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions.”
I think of Wilkinson as those people at the end of Fahrenheit 451, holding onto knowledge for a later time when society is open to them. It reminds me of David Frum who has argued that he would be in favor of cannabis legalization if he could be convinced that it would not have any bad effects or lead people into “harder” drugs. It always struck me because it is a position that pretends to be reasonable but is completely closed minded. Just the same, the power elite may look at Wilkinson’s overwhelming evidence for having a more equal society and they will find a way to justify keeping things they way they are. Like Frum, they would require that there be some kind of assurance that there would be absolutely no down side to the change. But what they are really arguing is that nothing be done — because the current system works well for them.
So I see Richard Wilkinson as a noble but tragic character in our society. And we all suffer because our society is too far gone to see the obviousness of what he has to teach us.