More equal societies include – unsurprisingly – the Scandinavian countries

Tuesday, 15. October 2013


Daniel Kestenholz


Student of Economics University of Berne

This reminds me of one critic who once mentioned that the Human Development Index, or HDI, was basically a measure of how Scandinavian a country was. Cynics aside; let’s have a look at some of the problems that statistically correlate with the measure of inequality. Most fundamentally, we can observe an erosion of trust. With inequality increasing, less fewer people would answer the question “most people can be trusted” with yes. What’s more, mental illness appears to be more common in such societies. More than 25 percent of citizens in the USA suffer from any some kind of mental illness, according to Prof. Wilkinson who has shared these insights with us at the Aacademia, talking to the audience via Skype.

Teenage birth rates are higher in more unequal countries. So are imprisonment rates, and also homicide rates. Whether this occurs because of a lack of empathy and trust, or a feeling of unease and fear remains to be proven. What emerges from these findings though is that if you can’t somehow put the diverging movement to a halt, you’ll have to spend more on police corps and prison infrastructure. Because as we’ve seen, criminality and inequality are positively correlated. The picture seems to gain in sharpness: whatever issue we’re debating, you’ll probably do worse in more unequal societies.

Social mobility is lower in more unequal countries. In Scandinavian countries with their more equal distribution of wealth, social mobility is quite high. Contrarily in the USA, social mobility is low, thus contradicting its stance as “Land of Opportunity”. Professor Wilkinson: “If you want to live the American Dream, you shouldn’t go to America, try it in Denmark instead.”

As wealth gaps open more and more, classes become more important, and the quality of social relations deteriorates. Along comes increasing competition for status, and more emphasis on consumerism, because this is how we compete for status. In an already deteriorating natural environment, this development is worrying and totally unacceptable. One question that arises in the aftermath of the presentation by Professor Wilkinson is whether social inequality is best fought by establishing a strong welfare state. Your correspondent in at this very moment regrets having missed the opportunity to address Mr. Wilkinson right after his lecture. But there might just as well be other participants here that are willing to share their thoughts on this question. On we go to day two of the conference, then.

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