Economic progress has always had the unfortunate side effect of magnifying inequalities, between the rich and poor, the employers and workers, and between the providers of capital and providers of labour. These inequalities were accepted by some to be a necessary component of industrial progress and elaborate philosophical arguments were raised for their justification. Inequalities became so extreme in the nineteenth century, that they motivated protective legislation, regulating working hours and conditions as well as the rights of workers to combine in their own defence. They also motivated the communist manifesto and subsequent revolutions.
The mid twentieth century saw a move to a more equitable distribution of income and wealth, but since the 1980s, extremes of inequality have again been experienced. Judt opened his critique of today’s inequalities -‘Ill Fares the Land’ – with the following: ‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self interest; indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.’
That pursuit of material self-interest, justified by free market theory, seeks to minimise taxation and exclude wherever possible any government regulation and control aimed at inhibiting the strong from exploiting the weak, and especially anything which might seek redistribution of income and wealth on a more equitable basis, both within economies and between them. The degrees of inequality between nations experienced today will increase as a result of resource depletion, pollution and global warming since it is the poorer nations, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, that will be on the brunt end of such effects.
The free market dogma, which is espoused by both sides of the new UK coalition, frustrates any attempt to replace the amoral pursuit of money with a search for fairness and equity. But as evidence mounts of the ill effects of inequality – for example, Wilkinson and Picket’s ‘The Spirit Level’ – initiatives for a more equitable society may become irresistible.