A few days ago, someone on Facebook asked me just this question. He wondered why anyone should care about inequality -- if we just deal with poverty, isn't that enough? Putting aside for the moment that societies with high poverty rates tend to have high rates of economic inequality as well, and that it can be hard to attend to one of those problems without attending to the other, Wilkinson's talk helps answer my Facebook friend's question.
Wilkinson makes a couple of points well worth emphasizing:
-- Somewhat surprisingly, research shows that economic inequality hurts not only those at the bottom and middle rungs of the economic ladder, but those at the top as well.
-- It doesn't seem to matter much how a society gets to economic equality -- whether it's through a more compressed pre-tax wage structure or post-tax income transfers. Regardless of the policy mechanism it takes to arrive at equality, once a society is relatively economically equal, it tends to perform well on a host of social indicators.
-- Perhaps the most fascinating part of this talk, to me, is when Wilkinson talks about why it is that unequal societies seem to suffer from far higher rates of social pathologies than their more egalitarian counterparts. According to Wilkinson, in unequal societies people live in a state of anxiety about constantly being judged, respected or disrespected, rated as inferior or superior according to their attractiveness, smarts, wealth, etc. This breeds psychosocial insecurities that are a recipe for societal dysfunction.
-- Finally, I liked his quip that,"If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark." Indeed.
UPDATE: Honesty compels me to report that Wilkinson's social science methodology has been seriously called into question. I've ordered the book and will read it for myself, but based on an initial perusal, Saunders' critique looks persuasive.