It’s not just easy access to guns–although that access certainly facilitates rising American homicide rates.
As the Guardian recently reports, there is a strong–if surprising– connection between income inequality, respect, and increases in violence.
A 17-year-old boy shoots a 15-year-old stranger to death, apparently believing that the victim had given him a dirty look. A Chicago man stabs his stepfather in a fight over whether his entry into his parents’ house without knocking was disrespectful. A San Francisco UPS employee guns down three of his co-workers, then turns his weapon on himself, seemingly as a response to minor slights.
These killings may seem unrelated – but they are only a few recent examples of the kind of crime that demonstrates a surprising link between homicide and inequality.
The article cites emerging research that strongly suggests that inequality plays a pivotal role in escalating passions in encounters that might otherwise end with some profanity and fisticuffs–that it raises the stakes of fights for status among men.
The connection is so strong that, according to the World Bank, a simple measure of inequality predicts about half of the variance in murder rates between American states and between countries around the world. When inequality is high and strips large numbers of men of the usual markers of status – like a good job and the ability to support a family – matters of respect and disrespect loom disproportionately.
Inequality predicts homicide rates “better than any other variable”, says Martin Daly, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario and author of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide.
Other studies show that rates of gun ownership rise when inequality does. Rising inequality also predicts the re-emergence of cultural traits like placing more emphasis on “honor.”
“About 60 [academic] papers show that a very common result of greater inequality is more violence, usually measured by homicide rates,” says Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level and co-founder of the Equality Trust.
Why would financial inequality lead to a renewed emphasis on status and respect? Researchers explain:
When someone bumps into someone on the dance floor, looks too long at someone else’s girlfriend or makes an insulting remark, it doesn’t threaten the self-respect of people who have other types of status the way it can when you feel this is your only source of value.
“If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got, you’ve got to defend it,” says Daly. “Inequality makes these confrontations more fraught because there’s much more at stake when there are winners and losers and you can see that you are on track to be one of the losers.”
Social science is methodically enumerating the negative social consequences of extreme inequality. Most reasonably well-educated people recognize that inequality produces social instability–history teaches us that growing anger from those with nothing to lose leads to riots, even revolutions–but most of us are less familiar with other ancillary effects.
There is ample evidence that large gaps between the rich and poor retard economic growth, depress marriage rates, and raise crime and homicide rates. (Ignoring the 41 million Americans who live in abject poverty in order to gift your already obscenely wealthy donors with a tax cut also implicates that pesky little thing called morality.) Historical precedent suggests that these effects–left unaddressed– ultimately destroy societies.
None of that evidence, evidently, is persuasive to the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of this world. Or perhaps they know and just don’t care. They are perfect examples of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”