Do people really want equality?

I promised I would write a quick post in response to the contention that politicians should stop talking about “creating wealth” because most people just want “equality and fair play”.

This appears an obvious point. Yet it is one with which I profoundly disagree. I do not, in fact, think people want “equality and fair play” at all. Sure, they will talk about them, but they are only interested in them really if they stand to gain something out of pursuing them.

When the Berlin Wall fell, people actually left the more equal society to move to the one which was better at creating wealth. People still flock to the United States – a fundamentally unequal and unfair society – in the hope of creating wealth. Even the Nordic Model, long held as the outstanding example of fairness and equality combined with high standard of living, is under severe strain from those who want to create wealth – of all places Denmark recently overtook the UK as the European country with the biggest gap between doctors’ and nurses’ pay, for example.

There have been several examples right here on this blog, for example. It remains the case that in Northern Ireland public sector workers earn 25% more (down from 43% in 2013) than private sector workers, yet they will flock to the comments column below to give us all sorts of reasons we should do nothing about that (or, at least, that they shouldn’t be paid any less). Fair pay? Not if it means lose out! The most fundamental wealth gap on the planet is between property/land owners and non-property owners, but suggest property owners in Northern Ireland should pay water charges with the money allocated to inner-city health promotion projects for people in social housing, and expect a torrent of abuse about how property owners earn their money. Equality? Not if it means have to pay!

This is to leave aside the fact that if public sector workers want their pay and pensions and then to go home to their properties and not have to pay water charges (all while maintaining a hugely privileged standard of living even by European standards, never mind global), somebody has to “create wealth” but taking risks, innovating, and trading world-leading goods and services that people in other countries wish to buy in order to add money to the overall pot (partly to be then to be taken in revenue and re-allocated in taxes to pay for welfare and public services). If nobody created wealth, the money to pay for welfare and public services simply would not exist. (It is entirely fair to point out that if no one delivered public services, no one could create wealth either; but both have to happen, so we do actually need to talk about – and do – both.)

As it happens, although we do need to do it, I do not think people’s main driver is “creating wealth” either. I think it is a combination, with the emphasis varying from person to person, of defending what we have (there are even protests about suggesting free transport for over-60s should only be outside peak hours!!) and freedom (actually the people heading West upon the fall of the wall were attracted by many things, but probably most of all by a sense of liberty). Where there are people defending what they have in an unequal society, and where there is liberty (where people are free to succeed and fail), there will inevitably be inequality – and intergenerational inequality at that.

So, for me, we like to talk about equality. But we don’t actually want it…


3 thoughts on “Do people really want equality?

  1. William Allen says:

    We like to think that we are rational thinking creatures, but the truth is we are driven by instincts created by millions of years of evolution. Those instincts mostly drive us to be selfish. There has been some selective pressure to encourage limited sharing of resources, but again by instinct that really only applies to those close to us. This shapes how we view and react to others in need. Very few people really care about starving kids in far away places but would be horrified by a local starving. This type of instinct flows into economics and politics as well. At an intellectual level socialism with equality and fairness for all is the perfect system. However it clashes with our instincts and always in the end fails.

  2. I do agree Ian. The difficulty is we have allowed profit to become a dirty word, and many people (particularly on the left of the political spectrum) are very quick to blame business or the wealthy for all the world’s ills.

    Society needs to encourage business and enterprise (small and large) in order to create the wealth to pay for our public servants. That’s just a basic truism before we even contemplate a debate about public sector pay packages.

    Digby Jones (a DTI minister under Gordon Brown) has written a very accessible and excellent book on the subject.

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