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Columnists

Balancing act

James Cary

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Cary

One of the things people on the Left like to do is talk about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. They also like blending abstract nouns to create couplets like 'Income Injustice' and 'Status poverty', which are essentially new terms for age-old problems like not having as much money as other people and feeling bad about it.

People on the Right also talk like this in an attempt to get people to like them. This is because the alternatives sound wrong when you say them out loud. 'A free society will inevitably allow some individuals to have more money than entire countries,' sounds brutally unjust.  Likewise, 'It's not about money but quality of life' is breathtakingly patronizing.

And yet both statements are broadly true. A free society does, and should, allow individuals to amass enormous fortunes. And a free society allows those people to hoard it, count it, stash it and pass it onto their children if they wish. It's not morally desirable for them or society. If they want to behave like greedy monsters, that's a shame. But that's the price of freedom and it's not for the state to take it all away. Tax, fine. Inheritance tax, grrrrr, if you must. But simply taking property because it's handy is the sort of thing Mugabe does and tends not to end well (although it has done well for Mugabe for the last 30 years).

Moreover, numerous studies demonstrate that the link between money and quality of life is tenuous.  And if Hollywood rags-to-riches-to-rags tales are to be believed, taking away everything from a multimillionaire causes the most giddying happiness of all, causing you to burst into song, hug surprised strangers and smile at the sky with hands aloft shouting inanities 'Hello World!', 'I'm alive!' and 'Every day is the first day of the rest of my life!' Then again, Hollywood rags-riches-to-rags tales are not to be believed. But they do tap into a truth we all know - that money does not bring happiness.

I mention this because at the Greenbelt festival this year, I heard a lecture from Dr Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the book, The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone. The book looks at numerous statistics to show that societies with the greatest disparities in income are, broadly, unhappier because of crime, poorer health and other measures. There were lots of graphs. It was like a Dave Gorman show without the jokes. But it was thorough. And very convincing.

You're expecting a 'but', aren't you? Be honest. You thought I was about to attempt to deny this overwhelming body of statistical evidence. He seemed a little hazier on the reason for this correlation, but there certainly appears to be a strong link between 'Wealth imbalance' and 'Societal anti-cohesion', to use two more terms I've just made up.

Dr Wilkinson was very keen to prove his point, and mentioned a few times that those on the political right were always keen to deny his findings. Capitalist free-marketeers naturally don't like the idea that the accumulation of wealth without bringing the poor with you is bad for society as a whole. Certainly, it's an unattractive side-effect of unfettered capitalism.

But I wouldn't argue for unfettered capitalism anyway because when the market is fully free, human nature kicks in. In short, we love a bargain. If we can get something cheaper, we will. This drives down costs and wages, and creates profits. This cannot and should never be done in a moral vacuum. Everything is moral. Dunderheaded bankers who nearly drove the economy of a cliff said 'We didn't do anything wrong.' Just because something isn't a crime, it doesn't make it right.

The only question is how moral we are prepared to be. Taxation won't get to the heart of the problem. Being compulsory, it lets people off the moral hook. We, as a society, need to change the way we think about money, and should be prepared to pay people a decent wage for an honest day's work - and the price of goods should reflect that.

Looking round the lecture hall, I saw the problem and solution all around me - and sitting in my seat. Christians see that all things are moral, and are under obligation to care for the poor. But churches and Christian organizations are often the worst at paying people a decent wage. When we get our own house in order, maybe things will change.