Thursday, April 09, 2009

An empirical argument for the left

In her valedictory speech yesterday, Helen Clark made clear her dislike of knighthoods:

I deeply detest social distinction and snobbery, and in that lies my strong aversion to titular honours. To me they relate to another era, from which our nation has largely, but obviously still not completely, freed itself.
But there's another reason, besides a dislike of snobbery, to oppose social distinction and knighthoods: because they kill people. That was the conclusion of the famous Whitehall II study, which found that social distinction in and of itself led to a gradient of health, with those at the bottom living shorter, less healthy lives than those at the top. The study was controlled for standard risks such as obesity, smoking, and reduced leisure time and physical activity, and for wealth - none of the British civil servants studied was poor in any absolute sense. There mere fact of hierarchy alone meant that people at the bottom were twice as likely to die of heart disease as those at the top. Larvatus Prodeo sums up the political conclusions:
The most obvious such consequence is that the study lends empirical support and an additional line of argument for the radical democratic critique of hierarchical and inegalitarian social structures of all kinds - whether corporate capitalist, Stalinist state socialist, state bureaucratic, patriarchal, clerical or military - and in favour of social democratic policies of redistribution of wealth and opportunity, and radical democratic projects of extending deliberative democratic and egalitarian modes of organisation to all spheres of social life.
And we could start by ditching knighthoods again.

But its not just hierarchy we need to take aim at. A new book, The Spirit Level, investigates the broader effects of inequality on society. Writing in the Guardian, Will Hutton sums up their conclusions:

Income inequality, they show beyond any doubt, is not just bad for those at the bottom but for everyone. More unequal societies are socially dysfunctional across the board. There is more teenage pregnancy, mental illness, higher prison populations, more murders, higher obesity and less numeracy and literacy in more unequal societies. Even the rich report more mental ill health and have lower life expectancies than their peers in less unequal societies.
(Emphasis added)

A sampling of their evidence is online on their website; there's a bit more in the Guardian's piece [PDF], which includes information on how literacy and death rates improve across the board with higher equality. It's compelling stuff, and it comprises an empirical argument for the left-wing program. Our left-wing parties would be wise to take heed of it.

[Hat-tip: Christiaan Briggs]