The fragmented society: How irresponsibility and inequality feed off each other


Following the riots, the various sides dig in behind the traditional battle lines of explanation, with one side blaming a breakdown of morality and the other pointing to income inequality. However, evidence suggests that these factors are not alternative explanations: they reinforce each other.

Turning to morality first. David Cameron has blamed “Criminality, pure and simple”, On this morning’s Today programme Nick Clegg  referred to a “smash and grab” and “get what you can” culture and the Spectator’s Melissa Kite referred to an “acquisitive” morality of “greed”.

It doesn’t take too much thinking to identify some role models of ‘get what you can’ morality. They include those in the financial services industry who have been seen to collect huge salaries, bonuses and pension payments while others suffered from the recession they helped cause.

They include benefit cheats who enable the demonisation of  genuine claimants. They include executives whose multi-million pound performance payments appear entirely unrelated to performance and whose companies expect the taxpayer to subsidise their underpaid staff through state benefits.

They include loan sharks who prosper from others’ misery. They include MPs committing fraud in the expenses scandal. They include well-known companies doing all they can to avoid paying tax.

With the exception of some MPs and benefit cheats, most of these have not been seen to be punished for their sins.

To turn to inequality, we should first recognise that inequality is not the same as poverty. Although worrying numbers do live in poverty, inequality causes damage to society as a whole, not just those in poverty: inequality pulls the strata of society so far from each other that society begins to break apart.

Inequality causes social exclusion, not only because some cannot afford to participate in ‘normal’ society but because there is also social exclusion at the top: the former head of the CBI has said that executives “risk being treated as aliens” because “their pay is so out of step”.

Research suggests that there is a causal relationship between levels of inequality (not levels of poverty) and levels of violence (as measured in homicides).

Further research shows that levels of community trust and cohesion are lower where inequality is higher.  This suggests that smash and grab morality, which neither respects nor recognises community obligation, is more common in a more unequal society.

 But what can be done, if individual immorality and social inequality reinforce each other? I have  three recommendations:

1) We all need to recognise is that “inequality is not inevitable, concerted policy efforts can be used to decrease it as Equality Trust research has found. 

2) Policies to reduce undeserved top incomes: the review of Fair Pay currently being considered by the Government, and Vince Cabl’s’ reviews of executive pay, could be a good start.

Coupled with  policies to raise undeservedly low incomes, such as promoting Living Wages (advocated by Ed Miliband and others) would help.

3) Policy makers and commentators need to recognise that we are all in this together – that smash and grab morality cannot be tolerated, at any level of society.

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  • Mike Thomas

    What is required is for people to take some basic responsibility to improve their lives. How does giving them money that they didn’t earn by re-distribution give them the incentive to be more responsible.

    Again, rewarding people for doing nothing leads to them expecting more for nothing.

    The riots were described aptly as “Shopping with violence”, something for nothing.

    F- …. fail.

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  • Ed’s Talking Balls

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-14503023

    The strong kind of leadership this country needs. Not.

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  • Leon Wolfson

    When the Tories have refused to consider the basics of the causes? Of course a proper enquire is required.

    @1 – Sure, punish the poor for being poor, they should just go starve in the street. Never mind that the other EU and Anglophile states, bar America which has many of the same problems, average about twice as generous unemployment benefits, and that’s the long-term ones, not the higher short-term ones many have…

  • http://www.timworstall.com Tim Worstall

    “To turn to inequality, we should first recognise that inequality is not the same as poverty. Although worrying numbers do live in poverty,”

    If inequality and poverty are different things then why does your reference to poverty lead to a discussion of inequality?

    If we’re going to look at incomes as a percentage of median then that is by dfefinition a measure of inequality, not the poverty which you don’t point us to.

  • Mike Thomas

    Leon,

    Don’t be such a soppy lad. This was violent theft and disorder for no good reason other than to take what they wanted and sod everyone else.

    A cause? Many fold and many of them can be laid squarely at the door of the last government.

    a) For allowing unconstrained immigration to price indigenous people out of unskilled work.
    b) For creating the entitlements system without any form of social contract
    c) For a total lack of moral compass by knighting dodgy bankers and then bailing them out.
    d) For an ‘all win prizes’ education system that did not place discipline, rigour and achievement as its core ethos.
    e) For skewing a benefit systems that did not reward families for staying together.
    f) For creating a compartmentalised society fragmented on cultural and ethic grounds with no common theme of belonging nor association with a core set of values.
    g) For creating a boom and bust economy that put 1.25m out of work.
    h) For creating a family courts system that castigates fathers and denegrates fatherhood
    i) For creating a legal system with rights, but forgetting the need to enforce responsibilities.

    Please, take your pick. I’ll also let you have all of the above.

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  • John Green

    It is nonsense to suggest that inequality is not inevitable. We are all unique individuals with different strengths and weaknesses. We cannot all excel at everything. Some of us are faster, stronger, more energetic, more motivated, more intelligent than others.

    A large number of the scum living in the more deprived areas of our cities have been raised by useless parents and have chosen not to benefit from our educational system, thereby rendering themselves unemployable. These people will never have the opportunities available to educated, motivated and hard-working citizens. It was ever thus.

    That dreadful little man Harold Wilson worried about the higher levels of attainment achieved by pupils at grammar schools compared with non-grammar schools pupils. His solution was to replace grammar schools with comprehensives in order to eradicate inequality by dragging all pupils down to the same level. The poor man did not realise that education itself produces inequalty. Some kids do well and some do badly, irrespective of the system.

    Why have you repeatedly used bankers as the example for a smash and grab society? Why not footballers and show business personalities? Why not point your criticism at the true architects of our appalling economic situation: Brown, Blair, Balls, Miliband and the rest of the New Labour coalition. They created, fostered, encouraged and presided over the system that encouraged some bankers into casino banking.

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  • Ed’s Talking Balls

    And let’s not mention the increased welfare payments doled out to many of the rioters, paid for out of inflated tax receipts garnered largely as a result of casino banking. Not too many complaints from the recipients or their political overlords then, were there?

  • Anon E Mouse

    Leon Wolfson – After 13 years of this situation festering and being pandered to by the Labour Party, you have some cheek to suggest this is anything to do with the current government.

    It’s thanks to your New Labour buddies that the country has allowed these people to believe they are victims whilst they live off the state with no intention of finding gainful employment other than drug dealing.

    Thanks to people like you and your stupid socialist aspirations, we have a country wrecked so you can continue your state handouts making people dependant on government instead of standing on their own two feet.

    A lot of work is required here to change this country dramatically in the right direction and if you really want to help either just shut up or go somewhere else where your childish political systems are tolerated.

    Such as North Korea…

    MMMMMMWWWWWWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

  • Tolpuddle

    ..and so here we go, lets blame “them”. Clearly it’s not you or me. So what shall we do? I know lets bang them up, three or more to a cell, ensure they can’t attend job interviews or exams. Oh and I know, the ultimate bit of genius let’s throw them out of their homes,
    Doesn’t that smack of collective punishment? Or if one is guilty aren’t they all? Shall we use the same argument for all people found guilty of any crime? What about driving offences, shall all family members who are related to drunk drivers loose their licences?
    I am amazed at the depth of philosophical rigour that has been brought to bear and the ability of “our leaders” to behave with such clarity of thought, not being driven by the bloodlust of the red top’,s obviously!
    So seriously, where does this proposed road lead us? Well obviously it’s back to the future. Slight problem, this method of punishment required a pressure bypass. From the 18th Century up to 1950’s ships took the “criminals” across the sea. (Ah, out of sight and out of mind, those were the days). Given that neither the Antipodes nor the Americas are likely to welcome our castoffs, what are the alternatives? Well we can all live behind giant walls with security guards or ship “them” to an Island? Neither option is particularly palatable.
    So perhaps it’s boring and lacking in theatre and doesn’t make up for the fact that our Leaders were pictured on their holidays whilst mayhem ensued. ,But surely it requires us to look at what our society is and what we want it to be?. Do we want it be entirely driven by the corrosive “market” that has created such fantastical disparities in rich and poor? A market that drives and demands and recognises “Social Darwinism” as a necessary corollary because the market, like God, is never wrong.
    Or we can resuscitate the Social Contract, the idea that we are all in this together, that my safety and happiness is dependent on yours, that we look after each other and that fundamentally when children are in trouble we treat them with kindness because they are children and are not fully formed.
    Or we follow Jonathon Swifts advice and eat “them”

  • Dave Citizen

    You are absolutely right Duncan – the extreme inequality we have created in Britain is, of course, not inevitable. Indeed, such levels of inequality are an aberration in human historical terms as well as when compared to many other EU countries.

    What is not unusual though is the tendency of people to defend their gains, however huge or ill-gotten they may be. Britain’s present super rich elite has been particularly good at convincing the rest of the population that their privileges are quite natural and not harmful to the country.

    It’s ironic that many of the very people who say they want to see a return to responsibility, hard work and decency so often turn a blind eye to the gravy train of privilege that Britain’s super rich cling to: sucking in tax payer subsidies, rents from hard working people and maintaining control over the assets needed to turn our economy around – and all passed on to the next generation of lords and ladys while we have a go at those with next to nothing. Wake up Britain – we can change things if we take responsibility for sorting out top and bottom.

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  • Mike Thomas

    Dave,

    How utterly moronic to make this an issue for the “rich”. The richest 10% pay over 40% of all income tax and have some of the highest tax-rates placed on them in the G20.

    They don’t break the law, they provide for their families without need or recourse to the State.

    You are another leftie that seems to have removed the word ‘morality’ from their lexicon and if you think that you solely have the answer by giving these people more taxpayer’s money – you haven’t got a clue.

    Knowing right from wrong costs nothing.

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  • Dave Citizen

    Mike – interesting how you have such confidence that you know what other people are and that you think words like “utterly moronic” are appropriate when someone expresses a different opinion – I’m tempted to jump to a similar conclusion about you based on your post but I will resist.

    As I said – it is ironic that many of the people who say they believe strongly in social responsibility, hard work and not milking tax payers are often the last ones to criticise such behaviour by the super rich.

    I guess there are still many people who aren’t ready to wake up to the fact that they’re being taken for a ride by the very people they’ve been looking up to.

  • Mike Thomas

    Dave,

    Please do debate my post because it’s actually on the subject matter and it’s not a Spartist rant about my pet subject.

    So, go on, do it.

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  • Dave Citizen

    Wakey wakey Mike!

  • http://www.thetellurian.com theTellurian

    There is a lot of analysis and finger pointing following the riots in England. The media is trying to psychoanalyse the mindset of the rioters and be asking what motivated the violence and theft. There will be much talk about the underprivileged youth and sense of hopelessness in these poor areas. Politicians will try to take advantage of the events, blaming the other parties’ policies as the cause.

    What will be overlooked is the main reason why the riots took place and what motivated the mob mentality. These rioters are the children of the State. Raised by parents on welfare, housed by councils, schooled by government run schools, healed by socialised healthcare and completing the cycle by graduating to the dole queues. The welfare is funded by the very people that these rioters attacked; the hard working taxpayers in this country.

    The Welfare State is the cause of the inequality people seem to be rallying against. But no one will mention it. We have one part of the population (taxpayers) made to serve the 6 million people on benefits, yet what this article is suggesting is that its not the fault of the rioters, its the fault of the taxpayers. The taxpayers should be handing over even more to make things more equal!

    Frankly, I don’t think its fair or equal that the taxpayer is made the servant of these people. As long as Britian maintains it status as a Welfare State, the cycle of dependency will continue. London has had riots in 1958, 1981 and 1985. We can add the riots of 2011 to that list.

  • http://www.politicsreview.co.uk Pete

    It is essential that we ensure equality of opportunity and basic rights to education, employment, health care and services to redevelop deprived areas. People become irresponsible because they don’t have the resources to resolve the issue and threfore don’t see any point in trying. http://politicsreview.co.uk/2011/08/19/broken-britain-v-breaking-even/

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