Leader: Inherited inequality in the age of meritocracy

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century has had a rapturous reception. 

Image: Dan Murrell
Image: Dan Murrell

Not since John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 has a work of political theory been as rapturously received on the left as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The book having reached the summit of the Amazon sales chart in the United States, its 43-year-old French author, who visited London last week and whom the New Statesman was the first British publication to profile, has become that rarest of things: a celebrity economist.

In this supposedly superficial and anti-intellectual age, his 690-page treatise on inequality, rich in empirical research, has resonated because it speaks to one of the central anxieties of our time: that society is becoming ever more fragmented as the very rich pull away from the rest. As Mr Piketty elegantly demonstrates, as long as the rate of return on what he calls capital continues to exceed the growth rate of the economy (as it has done since the 1970s), inequality will widen to levels unknown since the Victorian era.

It is the United Kingdom that best embodies the troubled future he sketches out: “a society even more inegalitarian than that of the 19th century, because it will combine the arbitrariness of inherited inequalities with a meritocratic discourse that makes the ‘losers’ responsible for their situation”. Britain is the land of the baronet and the banker, the landed aristocrat and the asset-stripper. It combines the worst of capitalism with the worst of feudalism. The result is a society in which both income and wealth are grossly mal­distributed, innovation is stifled and equality of opportunity remains a myth.

To date, Mr Piketty’s critics on the British right have chided him for his focus on inequality, contending that an alternative metric, such as GDP, is a better measure of a country’s long-term success. Yet, as meticulously charted in 2009 by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level, after a certain point of development, how well a society performs is dependent not on how wealthy it is but on how equal it is. More egalitarian countries, such as the Nordic states and Japan, enjoy higher levels of social mobility, trust and educational performance and lower levels of crime, obesity and mental illness than their divided counterparts, notably the US and the UK. Mr Piketty, who, despite his book’s allusion to Marx, is a mainstream social democrat, not a revolutionary socialist, concedes that some degree of inequality is necessary to stimulate enterprise. But the US and the UK long ago exceeded this point.

If we accept the premise that inequality is a social ill, the question becomes how to reduce it to the benefit of all. After the Scandinavian countries, Britain has one of the most redistributive tax and benefit systems in the world. National Insurance, VAT, income tax – the government already takes a lot of our money. Yet so great is the initial gap between rich and poor that the divide persists.

The solution is twofold. First, policymakers should look to embrace what the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker calls “predistribution”: seeking to stop inequality before it starts. By pledging to spread the use of the living wage, raise educational standards, build more affordable homes, improve lending to small and medium-sized businesses and expand free childcare, Ed Miliband is trying to develop a programme to do so.

Second, the next government should be bold and secure a more resilient tax base. It should seek to bring the super-rich into taxation. One way to do this is to tax so-called unearned income and inherited wealth, most obviously land and property (and other static assets), which in Britain is even more unequally distributed than income. Wealth taxes are progressive and hard to avoid in an age when capital is so mobile; they benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into more productive industries.

Rather than a society in which birth determines destiny – or “parentage dictates progress”, as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, puts it – our politicians should seek to build one in which reward is once again linked to contribution.