Equality: why more is good for you

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Equality: Why more is good for you

‘If you are asking why we need be so unequal, you are part of the solution’, says Danny Dorling.

‘There are only a very small number of people that are very intelligent but also have the social skills to run a company at that level. It’s just the nature of the world… If a person has those skills, then he deserves the money.’ Male, 37, private sector, earning more than £100,000 ($160,000) a year.

Equality is important because, when you have less of it, you have to suffer from bad behaviour, insulting suggestions and stupid ideas, eg. inequality is the ‘nature of the world’ or that ‘a very small number of people’ are ‘very intelligent’.

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'Equality is important because human beings live better in societies where we are more equal.' (Anthony Freda)

Equality is important because human beings live better in societies where we are more equal (in mental ability, sociability or any other kind of ability). We work best, behave best, play best and think best when we do not accept that some of us are better, more deserving or so much more able than others.

We perform the worst, behave very badly, are least relaxed and most unimaginative, when we live with great inequalities – and especially when we live with the idea that these are accepted by society.

Inequalities are bad for the rich as well as the poor. The rich are not all very hard-working, well behaved, happy or creative. Some are obsessed with making money and this can motivate them more. Most behave much better when they are more like the rest of us. They can have very bad social skills at the same time as they believe that they are ‘very intelligent’. Many don’t think about whether the poor should work hard for very little money or obey the law, or any other social conventions, when they are members of a group that is treated so unfairly.

How can people have the time and energy to contribute to our general understanding and enjoyment of life when they are thinking about the world with wrong ideas of superiority or of inferiority? Inequality is important because it makes us all behave worse.

Greater equality is our responsibility

Most people in the world have greater equality in so many more ways than their great-grandparents. In relation to men, the position of women has improved most. Death during childbirth continues to decline, and for the first time in human history, women will very soon be the majority of humans on the planet. Another example of progress is that few people now live in colonies. Fewer people are governed by obvious dictatorships than ever before.

Recently, the majority of children worldwide have been seen as equal enough to other children to be taught to read and write. Again, this is the first time in human history that this has happened. At the same time, most people have less equality in many ways than their parents did.

Women are the large majority of the world’s poor. Death in childbirth is still the biggest killer of women. More of us now, worldwide, are controlled by corporate organizations. Some of their employees say that there is no alternative to focussing on making a profit (even if this is inhuman). For the first time in history, we could easily prevent most of the millions of deaths of very young children every year, but we choose not to. At least we now have the choice.

The technologies and knowledge that gave us this choice were developed in places where enough equalities had been won to allow more than the élite to join in the study of medicine and science, and make advances. If greater equality is the basic solution to so many problems, then it is a good idea to look at what we get from it, not at the suffering from inequality.

Learning from Leonardo da Vinci

Here is one example, from a long time ago. In 1452, a servant-girl gave birth to a boy, Leonardo. He became maybe the best known painter, sculptor and inventor the world has ever known. He had many talents, and he has been described as the most talented man to have ever lived. But it is also true that he had success because of when and, more importantly, where he was born. He was born just outside the town of Vinci in the Italian region of Tuscany, with its urban center of Florence.

In the middle of the 15th century, Florence had become rich on unequal trade (buying cheap and selling expensive) and because of the relaxation of the profit laws from lending money. But these riches had not totally corrupted the people: Lorenzo de’Medici was the richest of the bankers, and he took gifted artists and scholars into his household.

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Everyone loses in an unequal society.

Ernst Gombrich says in his ‘A Little History of the World’ (in 2008), there: ‘…was no seating order at table. Instead of the eldest and most respected sitting at the top of the table, it was the first to arrive who sat with Lorenzo de’Medici, even if he was only a young painter’s apprentice. And even an ambassador, if he came last, sat at the foot of the table.’

Leonardo da Vinci was just one of those young men who came to sit at Lorenzo’s table (around 1480). It is ironic that the Renaissance was so good for creativity - it also created a new form of banking, eg. by the Medicis, which made profit by lending to others and getting interest on those loans.

Become part of the solution

People who make excuses for great inequalities sometimes say that there is something innate in humans that makes them want inequality.

But you know what equality is. You have seen it if you grew up in a ‘normal family’. You either treat your friends as equals or they are not your friends. The same with your partner, if you have one – they are not really your partner if you do not treat them as your equal.

If you went to a normal state school, like most people all over the world, including most that now go to university, maybe sometimes you experienced being treated in an institution as an equal to other children. It is only in the last century that so many human beings experienced being treated as so equal to others.

In a hospital, in a park, on the sidewalk, at a party, in any situation where entry did not depend on your ability to pay or you could not enter because of the colour of your skin, your sex, religion or caste: at all these points in life you have felt what equality can be. And you should feel it especially strongly at the weekend.

Ask why next year we cannot be a little more equal than this year. Ask why the barriers between us have to rise. Ask what is being organized to avoid things getting worse and to stop a few rich people taking more and more. And keep on asking – it doesn’t matter how quietly, or how infrequently.

If you are questioning why we need be so unequal, you are part of the solution. If you see others as like you, then you are part of the solution. If you are decent, and want to treat others decently, you are part of the solution. Nobody should seek to be part of the problem.

This article was originally published in Strike! Magazine.

Danny Dorling is a professor of human geography at Sheffield University. This text was based on his book The No Nonsense Guide to Equality, which is published by New Internationalist. His most recent book, Population 10 Billion, is available on Constable.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2013/08/12/equality-why-more-is-good-for-you/