Capitalism Threatens Your Health
By Julian Edney
04 April, 2006
The main event in capitalist
free markets is the creation of wealth. The other event is the creation
of inequality. Under principles of laissez faire this is not so much
a tradeoff, a positive for a negative, as it is two positives. Inequality,
the natural outcome of competition, is a sign of healthy struggle on
which the whole community is said to thrive.
In corporate philosophy the
mission of business is to maximize profit. To that end it values efficiency
over almost everything, including moral considerations. The parent philosophy,
utilitarianism, does not care if some people suffer injustices if a
greater good shows up later. (In fact some have drawn "indifference
curves" showing various gradients of inequality among humans, suggesting
the more equality, the fewer total satisfactions (1)).
The industrial revolutions
raised Western nations to massive wealth. Their stories can be written
as a history of progress, and that is the outward appearance. But their
entrails also ran with strikes, rights actions, antitrust decisions
and labor strife; at times the creation of wealth ruined people. Free
marketers will still explain labor mutinies as envious workers bent
on random wreckage. But these actions all targeted massive inequalities.
Yesterday's and today's conservatives
both say inequality is not bad if it comes from a free and fair market.
They explain that where you land in the economic struggle for survival
depends on your abilities, intelligence or character, so the blame for
pain must be laid on the individual. Actually, some go further and hold
inequality and injustice to be in the nature of things, so installing
ethics or equity is tampering with natural law and its Darwinian ways,
and it's not a good idea to help weaker players or the less talented
because that slows natural selection.
The nub is that free markets
and equality are opposed.
Next, what laissez faire
tries to promote also collides with the two prime values of democracy:
freedom and equality. They are the two legs on which democracy walks;
the goal is therefore to preserve both.
Louis Brandeis, who as Supreme
Court Justice before and after World War I inserted himself in the midst
of these struggles, said that we can have democracy or we can have great
wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both (2).
Working conditions have improved
of course. We no longer use child labor, nor fourteen hour shifts, nor
do we pay workers the absolute minimum they will accept. But every one
of these reforms was contested, fought, litigated, and intensely lobbied,
because it is not in the nature of laissez faire business owners to
want what is moral or humane. They want profit.
The basic colors of this
conflict have never changed. The arguments that nature is ruthless and
cannot be changed and that poverty results from inability or weak character
still abound. The rest of society is concerned with morality every day.
But businesses are amoral, following utilitarianism, and so we have
collisions. (Cardinal Ratzinger once presented the church's moral position
in this chronic conflict (3)). In this part of history we are on a rightward
swing of the pendulum. Union power is at a low ebb, and corporate culture,
materialism, and big money all seem formidable. People struggling for
social justice have reason to fear because laissez faire and Social
Darwinism are rising again (4).
Free market capitalism continues
on its fundamentally undemocratic course. The interior landscape of
most corporations is authoritarian, often exploitative. As a kind of
public relations gesture they regularly serve us those well-chewed paradoxes:
that competition is good for everybody, and that what is bad (the unhappiness
of poverty) is good because it's a spur. Third, that making wealth by
these competitive means raises everybody.
But common observation shows
that competition is not good for everyone, only the winners; that what
is bad is not good; and that unhappiness is not a source of energy,
it is depressing. And while this country gets richer it grows more unequal
(this has been going on since1774 (5)). So does the free market lift
the whole of society up? It does not. It spreads the upper and the lower
apart. (We may have wondered about these tricks of reason, but laissez-faire
is a powerful ideology, and under its spell we somehow accept that wheels
on the same axle can turn in different directions.)
The bigger the unfettered
free market, the less equal we become. And poor people cannot change
this, because even if dependable and hardworking, they are powerless.
But now a new player has
stepped in. New scientific evidence has been accumulating that inequality
itself is bad for our health. It's not so much the qualities of the
individual. Nor what he does. It is the system. It's the shape of the
community he lives in hierarchical or egalitarian.
After years of collecting
health data, Ichiro Kawachi in the U.S.(6), Richard Wilkinson in Britain
(7) and John Lynch in the U.S. (8) and their associates have discovered
that more lethal than cigarettes, obesity, alcohol, pollution, AIDS,
vehicle accidents, suicides and homicides, is the gradient of inequality
in our societies.
This finding was unexpected
and earlier researchers published and stood waiting for confirmation.
Over ten years, confirmation came. Now more than 30 studies show that
if you live in an unequal society, you run the risk of a shorter, unhealthier
life and your environment is more violent. In researchers' comparisons
of the 50 states, social equality is correlated with life expectancy
(9, 10), and the steepness of the inequality predicts homicide rates
and a raft of social ills. It's not just poverty (separately, poverty
is correlated with poor health).
When you compare nations,
on the other hand, richer nations don't have the longer life expectancies;
egalitarian nations do. Robert Sapolksy, in his recent Scientific American
article (11), teases out the mediating factors: it seems that people
in communities having higher 'social capital' (the degree to which residents
trust each other and participate in social groups) experience better
health, longer lives and less violence. It turns out that communities
with high social capital are also more egalitarian.
In short, each community
has a social gradient. The steeper the gradient, the more that community
is a killer. We can expect this new scientific evidence to be resisted
with every sinew--it runs frontally against our free market beliefs.
The United States is one of the most unequal nations in the world. Over
40% of the wealth is owned by only 1% of the population. This is a terrible
weapon in the hands of the rich.
If we want to improve our
health--something that obsesses Americans--it is clear what we must
do. We must find a way to raise both affluence and equality.
Julian Edney is the author
of Greed: a Treatise in Two Essays. Born in Uganda, he now teaches college
in southern California and can be contacted through his website.
1. Rawls, J. A theory of
justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 32-34.
2. Brandeis actually went
more inclusive at one point, stating that curbing bigness was essential
to democracy. Strum, P. (Ed) Brandeis on democracy. Lawrence, Kansas:
University Press of Kansas, 1995.
3. Razinger, J., Cardinal
(now Pope Benedict XVI) Market Economy and Ethics was presented at a
1985 symposium "Church and Economy in Dialogue" in Rome and
can be retrieved at http://www.acton.org/publicat/occasionalpapers/ratzinger.html
4. Edney, J.J. Greed: A treatise
in two essays. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2005. See Greed II.
5. It appears in 1774 the
top 1% owned 14.6% of the national wealth.~ By 1989 it owned 36.3%.
In Gordon J.S. "Numbers game," 1992, Forbes, October 9. p.
6. Kawachi, I., Kennedy,
B.P. and Wilkinson, R.G. (Eds.) The society and population health reader.
New York: The New Press, 1999.
7. Wilkinson, R.G. The impact
of inequality. New York: The New Press, 2005.
8. Lynch, J. and G.A. Kaplan.
Understanding how inequality in the distribution of income affects health.
In Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Wilkinson, R.G. (Eds.) The society
and population health reader. New York: The New Press, 1999. p. 202.
9. Kawachi, I. and Kennedy,
B.P. The relationship of income inequality to mortality: Does the choice
of indicator matter? In Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Wilkinson, R.G.
(Eds.) The society and population health reader. New York: The New Press,
1999. p. 112.
10. Sapolsy, R. Sick of poverty.
Scientific American, 2005, 293, 92-99. (December 2005).