The long read: The economic arguments adopted by Britain and the US in the 1980s led to vastly increased inequality and gave the false impression that this outcome was not only inevitable, but good
In most rich countries, inequality is rising, and has been rising for some time. Many people believe this is a problem, but, equally, many think theres not much we can do about it. After all, the argument goes, globalisation and new technology have created an economy in which those with highly valued skills or talents can earn huge rewards. Inequality inevitably rises. Attempting to reduce inequality via redistributive taxation is likely to fail because the global elite can easily hide their money in tax havens. Insofar as increased taxation does hit the rich, it will deter wealth creation, so we all end up poorer.
One strange thing about these arguments, whatever their merits, is how they stand in stark contrast to the economic orthodoxy that existed from roughly 1945 until 1980, which held that rising inequality was not inevitable, and that various government policies could reduce it. Whats more, these policies appear to have been successful. Inequality fell in most countries from the 1940s to the 1970s. The inequality we see today is largely due to changes since 1980.
In both the US and the UK, from 1980 to 2016, the share of total income going to the top 1% has more than doubled. After allowing for inflation, the earnings of the bottom 90% in the US and UK have barely risen at all over the past 25 years. More generally, 50 years ago, a US CEO earned on average about 20 times as much as the typical worker. Today, the CEO earns 354 times as much.
Any argument that rising inequality is largely inevitable in our globalised economy faces a crucial objection. Since 1980 some countries have experienced a big increase in inequality (the US and the UK); some have seen a much smaller increase (Canada, Japan, Italy), while inequality has been stable or falling in others (France, Belgium and Hungary). So rising inequality cannot be inevitable. And the extent of inequality within a country cannot be solely determined by long-run global economic forces, because, although most richer countries have been subject to broadly similar forces, the experiences of inequality have differed.
The familiar political explanation for this rising inequality is the huge shift in mainstream economic and political thinking, in favour of free markets, triggered by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Its fit with the facts is undeniable. Across developed economies, the biggest rise in inequality since 1945 occurred in the US and UK from 1980 onwards.
The power of a grand political transformation seems persuasive. But it cannot be the whole explanation. It is too top-down: it is all about what politicians and other elites do to us. The idea that rising inequality is inevitable begins to look like a convenient myth, one that allows us to avoid thinking about another possibility: that through our electoral choices and decisions in daily life we have supported rising inequality, or at least acquiesced in it. Admittedly, that assumes we know about it. Surveys in the UK and US consistently suggest that we underestimate both the level of current inequality and how much it has recently increased. But ignorance cannot be a complete excuse, because surveys also reveal a change in attitudes: rising inequality has become more acceptable or at least, less unacceptable especially if you are not on the wrong end of it.
Inequality is unlikely to fall much in the future unless our attitudes turn unequivocally against it. Among other things, we will need to accept that how much people earn in the market is often not what they deserve, and that the tax they pay is not taking from what is rightfully theirs.
One crucial reason why we have done so little to reduce inequality in recent years is that we downplay the role of luck in achieving success. Parents teach their children that almost all goals are attainable if you try hard enough. This is a lie, but there is a good excuse for it: unless you try your best, many goals will definitely remain unreachable.
Ignoring the good luck behind my success helps me feel good about myself, and makes it much easier to feel I deserve the rewards associated with success. High earners may truly believe that they deserve their income because they are vividly aware of how hard they have worked and the obstacles they have had to overcome to be successful.
But this is not true everywhere. Support for the idea that you deserve what you get varies from country to country. And in fact, support for such beliefs is stronger in countries where there seems to be stronger evidence that contradicts them. What explains this?
Attitude surveys have consistently shown that, compared to US residents, Europeans are roughly twice as likely to believe that luck is the main determinant of income and that the poor are trapped in poverty. Similarly, people in the US are about twice as likely as Europeans to believe that the poor are lazy and that hard work leads to higher quality of life in the long run.