Can Understanding How We Evolved Solve Inequality?

15/06/2015 11:45 BST | Updated 14/06/2016 10:59 BST

There's little debate that inequality is continuing to grow in the developing world, but some question how much of an issue it is. Right wing commentators believe that as long as the wealth of the poorest is increasing, it doesn't really matter. In a market-driven economy, they argue, inequality is inevitable and even desirable. A couple of years ago I read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, a book which proves that inequality is a bad thing for all levels of society. Using official statistics from 23 developed countries they demonstrate that countries with the greatest inequality also have the highest crime, mental health problems, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and obesity levels. The greater these issues within a society, the lower the quality of life of all of its inhabitants. When there are many rungs from top to bottom social mobility becomes more difficult and social cohesion more unstable. The rich begin to feel insecure and the poor resentful. Wilkinson and Pickett are not the first to argue that inequality is a bad thing. But their thoroughness proves it beyond doubt, and their argument that it is bad for everyone moves us away from the 'politics of envy'.

What to do to reduce inequality is a significant challenge. The Spirit Level argues for collective responsibility and ownership in the workplace. Politicians and philosophers have made suggestions for centuries. But whether it's Karl Marx and communism or Ed Miliband promising to tax mansions, attempts to redress the balance tend to involve taking wealth away from the rich. The rich, fuelled by the right-wing press, tend to view these attempts as attacks on hard work. As UK Labour's most recent defeat proves, this makes it difficult for proponents of equality to be seen as anything other than thieves of aspiration pedaling the politics of envy.

Instead of engaging in class warfare, we need to create an environment where wealth redistribution is viewed as a good thing by all levels of society. I recently read a book on evolutionary psychology called The Rational Animal. Its premise is that all human behaviour is motivated by seven evolutionary 'sub-selves' - self-protection, affiliation, status, mate acquisition, mate retention, disease avoidance and kin care. At any given time one or more of these are asserting themselves and driving our actions. When it comes to money, a number of the sub-selves appear, but excessive wealth is most strongly associated with the 'status sub-self'. Status is defined by the society it exists in, whether it's your birth, your education, your job or any other arbitrary measure that is relevant to that particular group. 'Status' is a malleable concept and as many corporations prove, it can be used to lever a range of behaviour. How many consumer goods are bought on the premise that they will make us more popular? Trends in recycling, solar panels and for 'green' cars are all linked to status-seeking. It's why the Prius with the green sticker on it sells so much better than the equivalent without.

If status can make the world greener, it can make the world more equal. To do this, we need to make wealth redistribution a desirable proposition, especially for the rich. The 'green revolution' has been driven by tireless pressure groups, government policy and education. A similar approach is needed to redress inequality. Children and adults should be educated on the importance of economic equality in improving our quality of life. Volunteering, philanthropy, fundraising, collective ownership and skills-sharing should all be a priority for government. Schools should teach that taxation is an investment in society, in everybody's quality of life, not just charity for 'skivers'. Celebrities should be appearing on our screens endorsing their charitable foundations - not banks and fizzy drinks. In fact, instead of worshipping sports and pop stars our heroes should be charity workers, food bank volunteers and carers. If we're so obsessed with fame, then let's replace talent shows with more meaningful reality TV. Whatever we do, let's take the Prius approach, and make sure people have the opportunity to show-off about it.

When we create this environment, the corporate machine will begin to meet the market need. Of course, none of this will happen possible without a government that endorses it. And government will only do what we tell it to. So let's take every opportunity we can to make sure our voice is heard.