Equality Not Unequal Growth

Further economic growth will not improve our health or well-being. For a better quality of life we need greater income equality.

We are at a turning point in human history. For centuries the best way of improving the quality of life has been to raise material living standards. But we have now come to the end of what economic growth can do for developed countries. Measures of well-being or of happiness no longer rise with economic growth. Even though health goes on improving in rich countries, that improvement is no longer related to economic growth. We also know that rates of depression and anxiety have risen over the last fifty years or so.

Not only has economic growth in the rich countries ceased to bring the social benefits it once brought (and continues to bring in poorer countries), but it now threatens the planet. We are therefore the first generation to have to find new ways of improving the real quality of life. The evidence suggests that we need to shift our attention away from increasing material wealth, to the social environment and the quality of social relations in our societies. For rich countries to get even richer makes little or no difference to the prevalence of health and social problems but, as other pages of this web site make clear, the social problems which beset many rich societies are much more common in more unequal societies. Societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor are more cohesive: community life is stronger, levels of trust are higher and there is less violence. The vast majority of the population seem to benefit from greater equality.

It is sometimes said that societies have to choose between greater equality and economic growth. If that were true, people in the rich countries have clearly reached a point where the rational choice would be equality: if our aim is to improve the quality of life while avoiding further damage to the planet, greater equality can do both whereas economic growth can do neither. However, the balance of evidence from studies of the actual performance of different countries does not suggest that greater equality is bad for economic growth. More cohesive societies are regarded as providing an environment in which business can operate more efficiently and there are at least as many empirical studies which suggest that more equal societies have better economic performance as ones which suggest the reverse. But as this issue remains controversial, it is probably safe to assume that there is no overwhelmingly powerful relation between equality and growth either way.

While it is essential to reduce carbon emissions, the production of waste and the use of the earth’s resources, that does not mean we face economic decline or stagnation. The development of sustainable economic systems requires rapid innovation and change, much of which must be resource and energy saving.

Kate Pickett discusses equality and sustainability at the Green Party conference: