What we can learn from Scandinavia about equality

A talk in Norway by one of the authors of the bestselling "Spirit Level" is highly revealing.

Anyone who has read The Spirit Level -- Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's statistical bestseller explaining why greater equality results in happier, safer and generally nicer societies -- will know that many of the charts the authors produce plot income inequality from low to high along the x-axis, and some other health or social variable, such as teenage births or educational performance, along the y-axis.

And they will know that, on such charts, the Scandinavian countries almost always keep themselves out of trouble in the bottom left-hand corner of the graph. They have relatively low levels of inequality, and accordingly they are less afflicted by the problems to which Wilkinson and Pickett draw attention.

How intriguing, then, to attend a talk given by Richard Wilkinson in Oslo on Thursday, during the book's launch in Scandinavia. Would an argument that generally holds the Scandinavian model up as an exemplar hold up to scrutiny itself from Scandinavians?


Double-edged sword

There are certainly many people in Norway who would argue against the claims of The Spirit Level. In particular, the right-wing parties (FrP and Høyre) question the extent to which a highly redistributive social model is even any longer sustainable. Whetting the appetite further, it was one of their members of parliament, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen -- an exponent of Hayek -- who had been asked to respond to Wilkinson's talk.

And highly revealing it was, too. Many of the arguments Isaksen put forward were of the standard denialist nature (correlation is not the same as causation; there is no proof that redistribution actually creates better living conditions; and so on). Most of these critiques can be countered easily enough. His argument that new technologies available in the richest countries are allowing us to live longer, for example, is predicated on the marginal gains in life years enjoyed by a select group of individuals and entirely overlooks the opportunity cost of the years of life lost in rich societies as a result of the pursuit of those few extra months by the wealthiest.

Taken on its own terms, Isaksen's critique pointed to little more than the safe assumption that he is probably against health-care reform in the US.

But the broader implications of a Scandinavian politician's critique of Wilkinson and Pickett's thesis are both important and relevant to the present political moment in the UK. Not least, they ought to be given careful thought by those Labour politicians now brandishing The Spirit Level as a manual of good practice as they go about their electioneering.

First is the ease with which the findings of the book can be turned against it. The general logic underlying Isaksen's argument, for example, was that The Spirit Level was entirely correct in its diagnosis of the natural tendency to division in society and he was grateful (politically speaking) for the proof. Thus do all those painstakingly compiled (and painful to contemplate) charts put together by Wilkinson and Pickett become a tool in the opposition's hands.

Isaksen was more than happy to agree with Wilkinson's analysis of society's "natural" tendency to division, for example, because it allowed him to claim that, for this reason, there was no reason to believe that more redistribution would actually result in greater long-term equality.

This may be flawed reasoning, but neither pointing out the degree of inequality that arises under governments of the right (or of the left-neoliberalist persuasion) nor even -- it seems -- actually attaining a high degree of redistributive equality, as has been achieved in Scandinavia, appear to be capable of overcoming it. In the UK, for example, David Cameron has got on very nicely with his Broken Britain line. And in Norway, a fear of the power of the right's anti-redistribution agenda of the past ten to 15 years has led the Norwegian left to slash taxes on capital income and stockholders' dividends, while in power. As Magnus Marsdal of the think tank Manifest points out, Norway's Gini coefficient has been steadily rising as a result.

Second is the issue of what the arguments against greater redistribution of income most conspicuously overlook. Here, too, there are lessons for the UK, particularly in the context of discussion around the top rate of income tax and taxes on bonuses, say.


Principles of care

One of the things that has helped slow the effect of recent reversals in the actual amount of income redistributed in Norway, in particular, is the much greater sense of social cohesion that exists in the country. This is not the result of the shops there being shut on Sundays, or the lack of a financial sector, but the consequence of many years of redistributive policies reaching deep into the fabric of society and nourishing its bones.

Deep down, Norway and the other Scandinavian societies still have it right because there is a host of other social policies (affordable childcare and longer paternity leave for men among them) that are sustainable on the back of a redistributive economy, but which themselves provide the basis for a more caring society. And it is care -- as a political philosophy, and as most convincingly argued by the likes of the American scholar Joan Tronto -- that provides the basic capital for mending broken societies.

This is the argument that now needs to be won in the UK. The important points made by The Spirit Level cannot get us all the way there. Moreover, they are liable to be misappropriated by the right unless the left finds a way of mobilising popular consensus around what people have in common, as much as around the things they are divided by.

Wilkinson was given a telling-off during the questions that followed his talk for at times seeming to get caught up in the almost scientific nature of the social divisions he was describing. That was probably justified, as socio-economic tendencies are not natural laws, no matter how strong the correlation.

But in keeping with the spirit of his point -- that the relationship between inequality and social ills is at least entirely statistically significant, and more so, it is morally compelling -- perhaps we also need an easy way of remembering what it is that can help us overcome such inequalities: one that needs to be remembered, it seems, in Norway, Sweden and Denmark as much as it still needs to be learned in the UK.

So here it is. E=MC2: Equality = More Care Squared.

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