Tony Judt on Inequality

Tony Judt on Inequality October 14, 2010

From Ill Fares the Land:

“Inequality, then, is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause. There is a reason why infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness and anxiety are so much more marked in the US and the UK than they are in continental Europe.

The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse the social problems: a statement which appears to be true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is. Thus Sweden, or Finland, two of the world’s wealthiest countries by per capital income or GDP, have a very narrow gap separating their richest from their poorest citizens–and they consistently lead the world in indices of measurable wellbeing. Conversely, the United States, despite its huge aggregate wealth, always comes low on such measures. We spend vast sums on healthcare, but life expectancy in the US remains below Bosnia and just above Albania.

Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed”.

This is a very Catholic viewpoint. It points to the structures of sin in society emanating from the economic system leading to greater alienation among people, moving further away from their natural unity. Given the harmful effects of inequality on the social order, Blessed Pope John XXIII was quite right to say that “the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth”.

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  • Austin Ruse

    A few thoughts on this post…

    First, I wonder where in the world there is “unregulated wealth creation”?

    Second, general life expectancy numbers don’t tell the whole story like Mr. Judt hopes they do.

    According to a new study just released by the Centers for Disease Control”a Hispanic born in 2006 could expect to live about 80 years and seven months. Life expectancy for a white person is about 78, and just shy of 73 for a black person.” Judt would suppose that Hispanics should be on par with blacks given economic factors.

    Lastly, isn’t the state of one’s soul more important than life expectancy. America is far more religious than Europeans. I can say unequivocally that I would rather die in state of grace at 78 than in a state of sin at 97.

  • phosphorious

    Austin Ruse:

    True enough! Blessed are the poor. . . and the USA has made great strides in increasing the supply of blessedness.

    Also, in answer to your first question: Somalia. No government = no government regulation.

    At all.

  • Indeed. I understand that we Catholics believe in communalm salvation, but I do not that think implies salvation by country – that would tend toward the great error that America is somehow specially chosen by God.

  • David Nickol

    This software seems to have wiped out my post. I will try again.

    Lastly, isn’t the state of one’s soul more important than life expectancy. America is far more religious than Europeans. I can say unequivocally that I would rather die in state of grace at 78 than in a state of sin at 97.

    Austin,

    Would you be willing to say that a higher percentage of Americans died in a state of grace than Europeans?

    Also, if Americans are more religious, why do we have a higher rate of criminality, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and illegal drug use? Shouldn’t a more religious population be more virtuous, too? Are the irreligious better behaved than the religious?

    Judt would suppose that Hispanics should be on par with blacks given economic factors.

    But he doesn’t say anything remotely resembling that. He’s comparing the US as a very rich country to poorer countries and pointing out we do not do as well. Money doesn’t buy longevity. Also, even if he had argued economic factors had an impact on life expectancy, surely he would not have argued that they were the sole determinant.

  • brettsalkeld

    “Lastly, isn’t the state of one’s soul more important than life expectancy. America is far more religious than Europeans. I can say unequivocally that I would rather die in state of grace at 78 than in a state of sin at 97.”

    Certainly. But is this a real dichotomy? Does my chance of dying in a state of grace decrease with age? (Sounds like a great argument for abortion to me.) Does the gospel really pit caring for your neighbor (in a way that would increase his or her life expectancy) against your own salvation?

    Whatsoever you don’t do for the least of these . . .

  • David Nickol

    Does my chance of dying in a state of grace decrease with age? (Sounds like a great argument for abortion to me.)

    Brett,

    If unborn, unbaptized infants who die are saved, one’s chances of being damned increase with birth.

  • Austin Ruse

    At least here, Judt’s analysis is purely economic yet from this Minion considers Europe is more Catholic than the US. This does not seem so when one looks at the actual practice of the faith as evidenced by actaully going to Church and supporting the Church financially. At this, Europe sucks and the US doesn’t.

    Maybe the French live a few years longer, likely no more than that. So what? Yet, the French don’t go to Mass any longer. This seems to this Catholic to be more important than living a few extra years.

    And Centers for Disease Control also shows that not all Americans die at the national life expectancy. Hispanics, even poor ones, live longer than white Americans and also longer than Europeans. Go figure that, Tony Judt.

    I would just say once more that Americans seem more Catholic than social justice Europe. Americans go tyo Mass at higher rates, give to their Church at higher rates, and give to charity at much higher rates. What’s more, just this past week the unions in France once more closed down the country over what? Over raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. This is necessary because France is gong broke. Yet, these good social justice communitarian Europens cannot agree to work a crummy two years longer!

  • Austin Ruse

    The difference in life expectancy between Sweden and the US is a gargantuan 2 years. One can certainly draw a lot of theology out of those two years!

    I would also challenge his phrase “the wealthy few and the impoverished many.” Does this really reflect economic reality anywhere except maybe the global south? It certainly does not reflect reality in the US of A.

    I would suggest ever so gently that Mr. Judt may suffer from envy. It is hard not to, what with all the wealth one sees around you in the United States, in our towns, and on TV. But still, envy is one of the seven deadlies just like greed.

  • Kurt

    I would just say once more that Americans seem more Catholic than social justice Europe. Americans go to Mass at higher rates, give to their Church at higher rates, and give to charity at much higher rates.

    The low Mass attending US Hispanics live longest while the highly church attending African Americans live the shortest lives.

    As far as church donations, this excludes the Church Tax. One can discuss the merits of the two systems, but if the former is entirely lacking in virtue, the Church has the authority to disown it, which she has not done.

    And the charitable giving in the United States is laudable, particularly if one appreciates the opera, saving puppies and maintaning one’s own house of worship. However, it is and always has been woefully insuffient to provide a Christian standard of relief for the poor.

  • Blackadder

    If inequality leads to crime, mental illness, and so forth, then why is the crime rate higher in Finland than the U.S.? Why is the suicide rate higher in Finland and Sweden than the U.S.? Etc.

  • “Equitable division and distribution of this wealth” does not mean equal division and distribution of the wealth.

  • Austin Ruse

    Actually, David, up to the age of seven, children are entirely safe from damnation. After that, yes, the odds change.

  • David Nickol

    Rick Garnett over on Mirror of Justice posted this comment from Lew Daily, author of God and the Welfare State:

    The US is far less of a religious outlier among advanced countries if one takes into account our “existential security” deficit, as political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue.

    I reviewed the book where they advanced this theory here.

    Here is an excerpt from the review, describing their thesis, which they posit as a critical advance beyond the rationalist and functionalist theories of secularization advanced by Weber and Durkheim respectively:

    They argue that the varied decline and persistence of religion in the world today is most strongly correlated with differing levels of “existential security.” Essentially, religion persists where people bear high levels of risk due to inequality, poverty, and inadequate social provision by the state. Conversely, more equal, less impoverished societies, especially those with comprehensive welfare provisions, have become increasingly secular by every relevant measure. The authors’ complex regression analyses show these correlations to be very robust across more than seventy countries— agrarian, industrial, and postindustrial.

    In the U.S. case, the evidence shows that our welfare exceptionalism–with higher levels of poverty, violence, inequality, and private risk–goes a long way toward explaining our religious exceptionalism.

    Rick Garnett appends a comment of his own:

    Hmmmm. Is this an argument in favor of our welfare exceptionalism? That it helps religion to “persist”? (I kid, I kid. Sort of.) Or (more seriously), are there things that a political community could / should learn from the findings Daly relates about how public-welfare and other (one hopes) existential-anxiety-reducing policies can be designed so as to avoid bringing about, as well, a reduction in public religiosity (assuming one thinks, as I do, that public religiosity is not necessarily something we should want to wane).

  • David Nickol

    I think Austin Ruse is perhaps implying that “existential insecurity” is a good thing because it is correlated with higher religiosity. But I would raise the question whether — assuming the analysis of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart has validity — whether religion as a refuge from “existential insecurity” is authentic religion.

    If material comfort and “existential security” amount to materialism that distracts people from God, then they may be considered dangerous. But if “existential insecurity” — instead of love of God and freely chosen belief — drives people to religious practice, then perhaps that kind of religion is the “opiate of the people.”

  • Dan

    If unborn, unbaptized infants who die are saved, one’s chances of being damned increase with birth.

    This is a very poignant point. We tend to gloss over this question as unimportant due to God’s mercy, but it’s not – this should lead us to question our understanding of salvation from the ground up.

  • David Nickol

    I would suggest ever so gently that Mr. Judt may suffer from envy.

    Tony Judt died August 6, 2010, of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He wrote a remarkable series of essays in the New York Review of Books about coping with the disease.

  • Austin Ruse

    We are aware that comfort and riches are sometimes an impediment to faith. But, given the US is rich, as rich as nearly faithless Europe, why is the US more faithful to the practice of the faith than Europe. It seems we are both more existentially secure and more faithful.

  • brettsalkeld

    I agree Dan. The Gospel of John, for instance, seems blissfully unaware of salvation as some kind of otherworldly phenomenon. Whatever salvation there is in the afterlife, it is very closely connected with “the fullness of life” that Christ promises us even now.

    In other words, the dichotomy on display here between building the Kingdom and going to heaven is utterly foreign to the Gospel.

  • Antonio Manetti

    In addition to material inequality, a major factor is a society’s social cohesion and communal stability.

    In the United States, we have neither. In Europe, the opposite seems to be true.

    When communities are strong and cohesive, the trappings of religious practice don’t seem to make much difference.

  • Austin Ruse

    The trappings of religious practice? You mean like actually attending a parish?

  • Ronald King

    What is religious practice?

  • digbydolben

    Just as always, Ronald King ups the ante, and asks the real question. Allow me to answer it: “religious practice” is MUCH more than “going to mass.”

  • Austin Ruse

    i was really focusing on the rather dismissive word “trappings”.

    Certainly, going to Mass would be one of them, Dig. You can assume if someone is not going to Mass they are also not praying or otherwise worshiping God. Is religious practice MUCH more than worshiping God? I know, I know, you can forget all about worshiping God just as long as you support a confiscatory tax system and a substantial social safety net provided by the guvmint.

  • Austin Ruse

    David,

    Even the Saints of the New York Review of Books can suffer from envy. I am at least pretty sure about that.

  • Antonio Manetti

    The trappings of religious practice? You mean like actually attending a parish?

    The trapping of religious practice, as in participation in religious rituals as well as providing financial support to the Church.

    Concern about this issue to the exclusion of wider concerns about the strength and cohesiveness of the community at large is letting the tail wag the dog.

  • Antonio Manetti

    From “Living with Darwin” by Philip Kitcher

    pp 163

    When the material rewards seem tawdy and unsatisfying, when consumer culture appears arid and empty, when people have no sense of why their lives matter, they lack places in which to air their thoughts to others, to engage in exploration of possibilities. Many Americans turn only to the churches for the sense of community that addresses the insufficiencies in their lives. There are often no secular alternatives. For plenty of Americans, there is no alternative to the neighborhood pub or the piazza.

    The democracies that have most fully appreciated the enlightenment case, that have been the most successful in the transition to secularism are those in which there are social networks of support. Citizens are protected from the risk of severe poverty; they are provided opportunities for taking care of their health. Above all, there is a sense of community life, secular spaces in which people gather and in which they can talk about their hopes and aspirations, their anxieties and their troubles.

  • Antonio Manetti

    i was really focusing on the rather dismissive word “trappings”.

    It’s meant to be dismissive because concern about church attendance and financial support emphasizes the cosmetic aspects of religious practice rather than the substance of living out one’s belief.

  • Antonio Manetti

    It seems we are both more existentially secure and more faithful.

    In fact, if anything, Americans are less ‘existentially secure’, as you put it.

    The vast shifts in the economy have made ghost towns of many communities — as those living in the rust belt will attest to.

  • Austin Ruse

    The point, Anthony, is that the American Catholic is both more faithful in the practice of the faith — you find going to Mass to be inconsequential? (spoken like a true protestant) — AND gives more to charity than his European counterpart.

  • David Nickol

    Even the Saints of the New York Review of Books can suffer from envy. I am at least pretty sure about that.

    Austin,

    Not after they are dead. I am certain about that.

  • Ronald King

    Austin, It is easy to go to Mass and give to charity. I would venture to say that if we gave until it hurt to the cause of healthcare for the poor then we would not need government plans for universal healthcare.
    If we had 5 million catholics willing to give $1,000 each to a fund for healthcare for women and children, what impact might that have on society? That would be a start in the practice of faith.

  • Austin Ruse

    Well, i am pretty sure the saints of the New York Review of Books are not exactly the same as Saints in Heaven and if that is so, then likely at least some of the saints of the New York Review of Books can experience envy even after death.

  • Antonio Manetti

    The point, Anthony, is that the American Catholic is both more faithful in the practice of the faith — you find going to Mass to be inconsequential? (spoken like a true protestant) — AND gives more to charity than his European counterpart.

    Where did you find the word “inconsequential” in what I wrote and since when does Mass attendance constitute the sum and substance of “practice of the faith”?

    Also, you might try withholding judgement about those who you know nothing about.

  • Antonio Manetti

    …And, by the way, Jesus condemned those pharisees who were more interested in observing the letter of judaic law for apprerances sake while ignoring its substance.

  • digbydolben

    Austin, I know some church mice who are ALWAYS in attendance at Sunday masses, and more, but whose appetite for vicious gossip and slander-mongering is voracious.

  • Austin Ruse

    Yes, Ron, it is a real chin-scratcher why the Europeans do not go to Mass or give to charity when it is so easy. Yes, indeedy.

  • Austin Ruse

    Anthony,

    Nobody said going to Mass is the sum and substance of practicing the faith, but it sure is a good place to start.

    About judging…hmmm, Mr. Judt really seems to be judging Americans..i am sure you want to correct him……and you sure seem to be judging all those pharasitical Americans who are silly enough go to Mass.

    The bottom line, gents, is that it is in America where the Catholic faith is lived most vibrantly in the Western world. I do not say the faith in Europe is dying. After all, it was in Europe where vibrant movements like Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation were founded. These and many other orthodox movements are the hope of Europe.

  • Ronald King

    I do not think Catholicism is lived vibrantly in America. I think its expression is fearful, reactionary and fragmented.

  • Antonio Manetti

    About judging…hmmm, Mr. Judt really seems to be judging Americans..i am sure you want to correct him……and you sure seem to be judging all those pharasitical Americans who are silly enough go to Mass.

    Deliberate non-sequiturs and distortions. The issue is the ad-hominum character of your rebuttals and the metric of external appearances you yourself have used in judging the moral character of others.

  • Kurt

    Ron, it is a real chin-scratcher why the Europeans do not …give to charity when it is so easy.

    Ahh, Austin again speaks of all the Americans who have got into heaven by giving to the Metropolitan Opera.

    And if Austin believes there is no virtue in Europeans paying the Church Tax, he might suggest the Church disown it.

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