Change Work December 2013

It's all right for some

One of the criticisms of the economic and monetary policies that have been implemented in most of Europe in response to the financial crisis is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, if anything, faster than ever.  And even as the UK economy seems to be picking up, there's no evidence that the benefits will be distributed any more evenly.  Another Austerity Christmas approaches and inequality gets worse.

Some people regard inequality as an evil to be eradicated.  Others see it as a fact of nature, but maybe haven't said so publicly - until now.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has made a speech in praise of Margaret Thatcher. He ranged widely but attracted a lot of attention with what began as remarks about global competition: "No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth."  He went on to talk about how IQ divides people and then, on individual competition, "I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity."

Now I'll do what most commentators did and take these remarks out of context in order to make my own point!

There's merit in the idea that we want the brightest among us to be running things, but do we really want the greedy in power?  If you're personally driven to accumulate material wealth then that's OK with me as long as it's achieved through providing superior goods and services.  When it comes through a position of power and influence, political or economic monopoly, then it becomes a problem.  Your wealth is a cost to everyone else. 

But as it's the season to be jolly, let's move away from politics - and explore instead the psychology of inequality.

Johnson thinks it stems from differences in "raw ability" or intelligence.  And it seems self evident that, over and above the random distribution of "opportunity", there are major differences in how people take their chances in life.  Knowledge and ability must play a big part, but maybe even more important is the question of what you really want.  In other words, your values.

How does this work?  Doesn't everyone want to progress their career, earn more money, have more status?  Well, only up to point, because with those payoffs come other things like responsibility, commitment, hard work and loss of privacy.  Then there's the effect on your relationships: if you make it big, others will be jealous.

If these things conflict with some of your more important values then you'll probably sabotage yourself.  Even if you know exactly what to do - to get the job or make a fortune - your unconscious mind will be busy thinking up reasons for not taking action.  These leak through into your conscious awareness to justify your lack of enthusiasm.  And once you've rationalised the decision to forego an opportunity, you don't have to confront the fear that you felt.

I conclude from this that the biggest difference between those who gain vast wealth and those who don't is that the former really want to be wealthy, more than anything else.

If we recognise this then we also recognise that the urge to accumulate is literally irresistible for some people.  So the wider question then is how can things be organised so that this drive doesn't hurt everyone else.

But coming back to inequality, if you're dissatisfied with your place on the spectrum of personal success, and firmly stuck there, then perhaps you're mistaken in what you think you want.  When you're clear about it, you'll make it happen.

Merry Christmas!