To Tackle Inequality, We Need to Start Talking About Where Wealth Comes From

Thatcherite narrative on wealth creation has gone unchallenged for decades.
By Laurie Macfarlane – Do people in Britain resent the rich? According to two new studies published this week, the answer to this question is: not really.

The studies, one commissioned by Trust for London and another by Tax Justice UK, explore public attitudes towards wealth based on focus groups held across England. Both found that most people are relatively content with people getting rich, and that attacks on the wealthy are often viewed negatively.

This presents a dilemma for progressives. In recent years left-wing leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have taken a more confrontational approach towards the super-rich. In Britain, the Labour Party’s war cry under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has been ‘For the many, not the few’, while in the US Bernie Sanders has made no secret of his contempt for billionaires.

But what if it turns out that ordinary people don’t agree? One response to this dilemma, as outlined by Sonia Sodha in the Observer, is to accept that “the belief that Britain is a meritocracy is ingrained in our collective psyche”, and adjust policies and narratives accordingly. This would mean ditching the class-war rhetoric and instead putting forward solutions designed to appeal to a meritocratic worldview. This might include, for example, closing tax loopholes and increasing particular taxes on grounds of fairness and efficiency.

Sodha is right to point out that this strategy is more likely to chime with people’s existing attitudes towards wealth. As the authors of the Tax Justice UK report note: “The participants in our focus groups largely believe in meritocracy. Those with wealth were seen as having acquired it through hard work.” Participants in the Trust for London research expressed similar views.

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But does this mean that progressives should accept the way things are and move on? Not necessarily. As a well-known philosopher once said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

People’s views aren’t formed in a vacuum: they are shaped by social and political forces that evolve over time. Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution wasn’t just successful because it reorganized the economy – it was successful because it embedded a particular narrative about how wealth is created and distributed in society. This is a world where, so long as there is sufficient competition and free markets, every individual will receive their just rewards in relation to their true contribution to society. There is, in Milton Friedman’s famous terms, “no such thing as a free lunch”. It’s a world where businesses are the “wealth creators” who create jobs and drive innovation, and business owners are entitled to the financial rewards of success – regardless of how enormous they are.

The problem, of course, is that it bears little resemblance to how the economy actually works. While it is true that working hard will generally help you earn more money, this causality doesn’t hold in reverse: not all wealth has been attained through hard work. In practice, the distribution of wealth has little to do with contribution, and everything to do with politics and power. more>

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