Reducing violence by reducing inequality

Reducing violence by reducing inequality

Jun 23, 2017

By Anil Netto
The other day I was at a dinner where a politician expressed concern about the state of society today, especially the twin problems of violence and rampant high-level corruption, both very much the talk in social gatherings these days.

Some worry that society could be heading for a “break down” if clear measures are not taken to halt the trend. Concerns intensified after the senseless and brutal deaths of two youths in separate incidents at the hands of their respective university and schoolmates.

Perhaps the spate of violence is a symptom of something deeper at work.

In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009), authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson highlight the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption.”

The landmark book reveals that in each of 11 different health and social problems, the effects are worse in unequal richer societies.

The 11 types of problem areas listed are physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies and child wellbeing.

The Equality Trust, which works to improve the quality of life by reducing inequality in the UK states that “the link between inequality and homicide rates has been shown in as many as 40 studies, and the differences are large: there are five-fold differences in murder rates between different countries related to inequality.”

The most important reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is that “it is often triggered by people feeling looked down, upon, disrespected and loss of face.” In contrast, when inequality is reduced, “people trust each other more, there is less violence and the rates of imprisonment are lower,” the Equality Trust pointed out.

In the UK, inequality grew more pronounced from the 1980s with the introduction of neoliberal economic policies introduced by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

In Malaysia, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider, after years of neoliberal policies and crony capitalism, mainly beginning from the 1980s.

These policies, which tended to favour Big Business and wealthy individuals, resulted in tax cuts for the wealthy. To make up for the shortfall in government revenue, spending on social services especially education and healthcare was trimmed.

New and regressive taxes were introduced in particular the GST. Trade union powers were tightly controlled and labour became more “flexible” — and increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and competition from low-income migrant workers.

Although official Malaysian statistics may indicate declining inequality, a closer examination of wage inequality, the breakdown of house and car sales and unit trust savings in a research paper published by the World Bank suggests the gap is still wide.

Catholic Social Teaching emphasises working for the common good to ensure the wellbeing of society. This is spot on with the views of Pickett and Wilkinson. In a commentary earlier this year, they pointed out that studies have shown that people in more equal societies are more willing to help each other, trust each other, and to take part in community life.

“The evidence also suggests that they are less out for themselves and more responsive to the common good.”

But all that fades with rising inequality, they assert. “Trust and community life decline and violence increases. And in some of the most unequal countries, such as Mexico and South Africa, you find that people fear each other. Windows and doors are barred, and garden walls are topped with razor wire or electric fences.”

They also found that in rich societies where there is high inequality, a high percentage of workers are employed as personnel in prisons or the police, which are “occupations needed to protect ourselves from each other.”

As we move from an industrial society to a more services-oriented economy, trade unions are unlikely to be restored to their previous influence. In such a situation, Picket and Wilkinson recommend a move towards greater economic democracy through “employee-owned companies, employee cooperatives, and substantial board-level employee representation.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn'’s Labour Party put up a strong showing in the recent UK general election.

Corbyn had pledged to improve social services like healthcare, childcare and higher education and fund this additional spending by raising corporate taxes and personal tax rates targeting the super-rich. In other words, trying to reverse the neoliberal trend.

Catholic Social Teaching teaches us that everyone has the responsibility for the common good. In addition, the state also has a key role to play as upholding the common good is a key responsibility of political authority, and it has to ensure the coherency, unity and organisation of society.

So it follows that the state must take a clear and strong position against violence directed at any member of society. In this respect, political leaders must set the tone that violence in society will not be tolerated. Increasingly in this era of climate change, violence should include ‘violence’ directed at the environment that upsets the ecological balance and harms the common good.

All said, we need to look deeper into why these cases of violence are occurring and examine their root causes so that we can take swift measures to protect the common good.

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