Focus on inequality, not on poverty


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/12/2010 (4422 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


“Where the possession of political power is due to the possession of economic power or wealth… that is oligarchy, and when the unpropertied class has power, that is democracy,” said the Greek philosopher Aristotle 300 years before Christ.

Yet the western democracies, particularly the U.S., U.K. and Canada, are slipping back to the extremes of wealth and poverty not seen since the 19th century’s Gilded Age.

In 2005, the richest 10 per cent of Canadians held almost 60 per cent of all household wealth. That same year, the richest one per cent of taxpayers paid a lower tax rate than the poorest 10 per cent.

Throughout most of the 20th century, western democracies challenged entrenched economic and financial power and took great strides to reduce entrenched economic and social inequity. That ended abruptly in the mid-1970s.

As Linda McQuaig points out in her latest book, The Trouble With Billionaires: “For many on the right and even a surprising number on the left, inequality has become a non-issue, even as it’s grown by leaps and bounds… Today, many influential progressives insist that poverty, not inequality, should be the focus… how well the rich are faring is irrelevant.”

Exchanging the word inequality for the word poverty makes life easier for governments and the wealthy. Poverty can be addressed by the noblesse oblige of private charity. Inequality can only be addressed by genuine social and economic change.

What happened in the 1970s to repeal three-quarters of a century of social and economic progress and equality for the vast majority? In 1973, American billionaire David Rockefeller founded the Trilateral Commission, a secretive and very exclusive club composed of the corporate, academic and political elites of the U.S., Europe and Japan.

The September 1989 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, a magazine published by France’s leading newspaper, featured a retrospective on the Trilateral Commission’s 1973 symposium on democracy. Entitled The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies, it warned “an excess of democracy” was creating a governability problem in the western world.

Reacting to the heightened political participation, social protest and citizen engagement of the 1960s, the report’s U.S. author, Samuel P. Huntington, warned of a “democratic distemper” as people demanded more of government while challenging established authority.

“People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character or talents,” the report continued. “An excess of democracy means a deficit in governability. There are potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.”

Huntington went further, claiming the effective functioning of democracy requires a measure of apathy and non-participation by some groups. Democracy’s governability was further threatened by the awakening of “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population — blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women — all of whom became organized and mobilized in new ways to achieve what they considered to be their appropriate share of the action and the rewards.”

Huntington’s solution was to dampen political engagement. “(T)he effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” When too many people participate, there is a “breakdown” of democracy.

What better way to dampen engagement than to dampen equality and social mobility. The wars and financial crises of the last 35 years — and the rise of neo-conservative governments marching to the corporate drumbeat and dedicated to pushing back progressive taxation and other “democratic excess” — are achieving Huntingdon’s dream.

Huntingdon’s dream is democracy’s nightmare. The rich, particularly in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, are becoming ever more fabulously rich, the middle class — the bastion of democracy — is in full retreat, while the poor are becoming ever poorer and there are ever more of them.

In their groundbreaking study of social trends in the OECD’s 34 member nations, British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett find that even the very rich suffer in very unequal societies.

“All problems which are more common at the bottom end of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies,” they write in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. That’s because crime, violence, poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and disease — all the social pathologies intensified by the growing gap between rich and poor — shatter the mutual trust among citizens upon which democratic institutions depend.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

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