Zoe Williams thinks so—Deirdre McCloskey disagreesby Zoe Williams , Deirdre McCloskey / July 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Zoe Williams: Everybody is against inequality, yet nobody thinks they can be the agent of its reversal. It feels either too vast or too abstract, like fighting a tide. It is only when you start talking about its effects—the mechanisms by which inequality makes our lives worse—that you get any sense of agency. Its effects are everywhere: there is no social ill that cannot be traced back to the concentration of wealth into ever fewer hands.
The problem is not that somebody else has a Porsche and you want one: it is not even the proven disparities in health, life expectancy, educational attainment, and all other measures of wellbeing, between one income group and another. Rather, it is that wealth inequality brings an imbalance of power, which is not a steady state, it is a feedback loop. The status quo is not static.
A key driver of inequality has been the redistribution of profit, away from labour, towards the holders of capital. There’s no natural arrest to this: the lower your wages, the more dependent you are on your job—being unable to build a savings cushion—and the less you can negotiate; your security and conditions decline; now your bargaining power is lower still, and your wages ratchet down further. Your position in the housing market is eroded as your options are limited; the landlord’s position improves, as your poor working conditions render you unable to save for a house of your own. Revenge evictions, zero-hours contracts, poorly constructed, dangerous housing stock, slave-like workplace surveillance; these apparently disparate phenomena all spring from a surfeit of power, of the asset-holding class over the rest.
The standard inequality narrative demands that the poor better themselves—ideally mentored by the rich—in order to improve their prospects: in real life, all our prospects are in rather a simple interplay. Wealth concentrates power, which is marshalled to curtail the countervailing power of any threat to itself. It’s not inevitable, but it is observable, unlike trickle down, or invisible hands, or any of the other theories whereby inequality is justified.