In early 2010, when Greece was sinking in debt and China was soaring with a growth rate of 11.9 percent of GDP, a visit to China turned out to be most enlightening. Government officials, executives of major companies and journalists were unanimous in expressing a grave fear: that inequality between rich and poor in their country was threatening their country’s achievements. This was a year or so before the Occupy movement drew attention to inequality between citizens and between countries.
A year earlier, in 2009, two epidemiologists in Britain, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, had published a book which, with a wealth of figures and compelling analysis, argued that almost everything in society is determined by the level of equality among its members. They said that life expectancy, mental illness, violence and the level of literacy depended not on how wealthy a society is but how equal it is. In “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone,” the authors wrote that societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone.
The book had significant impact and also provoked criticism. However, one does not need all these (convincing) statistics to understand that inequality can poison everything. Solon and Aristotle believed that equality before the law was the basis for social progress and well-being. In the last century, great battles were waged for equality between the sexes and between races. But the road toward equality is still long, in many parts of the world.
Today, much of the public debate in Western societies is focused on this issue. Just a couple of days ago, in his State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama made clear that he will do whatever he can to close the widening gap between Americans. “Inequality has deepened,” he declared. “Our job is to reverse these trends.” On Wednesday, presenting her government program, newly re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of Germany’s “social market economy” that aspires to growth, jobs and innovation while assuring social welfare and greater equality.
We know the issue well in Greece. Here we achieved unprecedented equality and prosperity only to see them shaken to the core. Our extravagance, impunity, indifference and lack of conscientiousness undermined the essence of equality to the extent that our prosperity was founded on borrowed wealth. The crisis and reforms have affected everyone, with greater weight falling on the middle class and social welfare system. Now that we have to start from the beginning, at least we know the danger that inequality poses and the need to achieve true equality among citizens.