On CNN.com today, an article was published entitled “Why Inequality is bad for you — and everyone else.” This article, written by Richard Wilkinson, an emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, referenced his own recent TED talk that he gave regarding the negative effects of the huge economic gaps in society.
Here is the link to the TED talk:
Wilkinson argues that data now shows how inequality is socially corrosive, for social problems are proved to be much worse in societies where there are larger gaps between the rich and the poor. Interestingly, he believes that the problems are not limited to those who are at the bottom of society; economic inequalities ultimately affect up to 95% of those in the population. Wilkinson writes,
Greater income inequality seems to amplify and intensify the effects of social status differentiation — bigger material differences creating bigger social distances. So the most common trigger to violence seems to be people feeling disrespected and looked down on. Although social class imprints its effects on us from earliest childhood onward, greater inequality makes these effects more marked.
Reading the article and watching the TED talk immediately reminded me of Shklar’s book, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion. Shklar argues that citizenship is the same as standing, and in order to obtain standing and public respect, Americans need to have the right to vote and the right to earn. American citizens don’t need to be acting on their right to vote, but they most definitely need to be earning according to Shklar; these two pillars are absolutely crucial to American citizenship.
The connections between Shklar and Wilkinson are quite interesting, though. In this article, I thought that Wilkinson seemed to be describing the gap between the rich and the poor as the same as the gap between citizens and non-citizens. In both cases, this gap represents that transition to the other side of the spectrum thus the transformation of a person’s standing in society. If the poorer people are feeling disrespected and looked down on as a result of this widening economic gap according to Wilkinson, their standing in society also alters. Wilkinson implies that social standing is affected by economic factors; therefore, how would Wilkinson interpret Shklar’s “right to earn” pillar of citizenship?
Wilkinson provides a solution to the widening economic gap. He promotes a socially cooperative society that would avoid conflict and competition. Wilkinson writes,
Depending on our social relationships, other people can be the best — or the worst.
Wilkinson poses a question to the reader asking whether or not we are growing up in a world where competition is constant and trust is rare, or whether we are growing up in a world which depends on cooperation and reciprocity. In political theory terms, he is asking if our society is placing more emphasis on self-interested, classic liberalism virtues or altriustic, civic republicanism beliefs.
Personally, I believe that it is vital for our society to take a much more altruistic approach, and with that approach, Shklar’s definition of citizenship should no longer be applicable. Ultimately, Wilkinson’s egalitarian and altruistic solutions to economic problems are a much more civic republican outlook on the definition of citizenship. If the gap between the rich and the poor is smaller, there are less social problems in society. Similarly, if the gap between citizens and non-citizens is smaller, there are less divisions between the population. I believe that Wilkinson wants to erase that widening gap because he seems it detrimental to most of society whereas Shklar seems to create and foster that division in standing. Aren’t Wilkinson and Shklar at odds with each other? Can a quasi-egalitarian society erase the widening gaps in economic status and erase the arguments between who is and is not a citizen?