commentary • 05.03.09
I used to think that the gap between rich and poor didn’t matter much as long as the poorest were sufficiently well off. What was important was subsistence. Equality was a moral and theoretical concept. What mattered was having a secure roof over your head with basic comforts. Not having those things would always be a direct source of misery of course. But absolute poverty was more crucial than relative poverty. If you had the basics it didn’t matter much how many billionaires there were.
Although I still think that is partly true the picture is more complicated. Inequalities matter psychologically, and although not in the same way to everybody, they matter nevertheless. It may be an unsophisticated mind that measures well-being in terms of having and not having but anyone can be prone to feelings of inadequacy faced with a lowly position even if the measure of that position is a material one.
It is true that the more enlightened a person is the less such things matter beyond a base level of providence. But most people aren’t enlightened most of the time. Many aren’t enlightened at all. At some level we are all of us animals driven by primal impulses. The animal being is highly tuned to power positions of whatever kind. Lower esteem often results from being lower down the hierarchy. Those who have more - more money, more status, more power - are likely to feel more confident. A society which encourages competition and emphasises status is likely to breed higher levels of anxiety than one which prefers equality.
Believing that an enlightened view was prevalent whereby people could and did overcome status anxiety by holding to a more elevated system of values was how I used to play down the inequality arguments. Those who chased money were "bread-heads" more to be pitied than anything else. And although I can still hold to that it is increasingly challenged by failures in my own experience resulting in my place in the chain being too low for comfort. More importantly, even if I had been able to hold to the elevated view I would be in a very small minority indeed. The majority aren’t that sophisticated. Their esteem is intimately tied up in status and material success. That I thought inequality not that important in the past was more due to wishful naivety than anything else.
a society which encourages competition is likely to breed
higher levels of anxiety than one which prefers equality