There's an article at Greater Good that reports on the negative effects of inequality. It's by Jason Marsh, the editor in chief there, and 'there' is The Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley; it 'studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being'. I'm all for highlighting the harmful consequences of inequality, but I'm sceptical about the particularities of Marsh's argument in this piece.
What it highlights are the harmful consequences of inequality, not for the poor - though it does refer to these too, taking them for granted - but for the rich themselves. Marsh refers to studies showing that 'attaining high social status impairs key social and emotional skills'; rich people are less able 'to read other people's emotions' than are their poorer compatriots, are less compassionate, feel less empathy. Furthermore - and this is key to the criticism I shall go on to make - the emotional skills which the rich possess and display less than others do are skills 'linked to leading a happy, meaningful life', and so 'they risk depleting their own reserves of happiness'. On this basis Marsh believes that inequality should be 'a concern for anyone who cares about the health and well-being of American society as a whole'.
Well, so it should, on grounds of fairness. My scepticism about the above argument relates, however, to the subtext it carries, which is to the effect that everyone, rich as well as poor, has a common interest in addressing and trying to lessen high levels of inequality. This is a most implausible view. To begin to see why, one only has to ask: if the rich are made unhappy by their wealth why aren't they clamouring in large numbers for programmes to deal with the imbalance and the inequities involved in their having it? An attempted answer might be: they're unhappy, or less happy than they might be, but they just don't know it. This sort of thing is sometimes possible, of course; that someone is unhappy without knowing the causes of their unhappiness. But it is usually possible in such cases to help them towards understanding the source of the problem; through conversation, information, therapy, or what have you. There's nothing wrong with trying to do that, to convince the rich that they too would be a lot better off if they were less rich.
As a general political project, however, what I would say about this is - good luck with it. While it might have some success, persuading a proportion of the very rich, it will fail with others, and most others. Marsh ignores certain pertinent 'relativities' in the present context. He trades on the hypothesis of an unhappiness of the wealthy, of which the wealthy themselves are supposed to be more or less ignorant - not knowing either of their unhappy emotional state or of its causes - but he doesn't reckon with the possibility that the very wealthy may in fact be on balance more happy than otherwise, because the advantages and conveniences of wealth outweigh its emotional disbenefits, so that there is a net gain in happiness. For this reason, I hypothesize that the struggle to reduce inequality will have to rely, as it always has done, more on those who suffer its ill effects at the sharp end, so to say, than on those putatively short on human empathy because of their riches (who can, incidentally, always give lots of money away if they choose to, thereby gaining an extra psychological boost).