Globalization and Perceptions of Social Inequality

By Lübker, Malte | International Labour Review, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Globalization and Perceptions of Social Inequality


Lübker, Malte, International Labour Review


Rising inequality is one of the most problematic aspects of the current wave of globalization. There is still heated debate on whether and how globalization causes greater economic and social differences, but certain trends have brought the issue of inequality to the fore. Past decades of globalization have coincided with increasing inequality within countries. Increased capital mobility has led to competition between countries for investment, and since government intervention on the redistribution of income is increasingly perceived as an obstacle to investment, this could negatively affect governments' willingness (and ability) to take action against inequality. And so far, globalization has seldom bridged - indeed it has often increased - the gap between rich and poor countries.

Many people thus readily associate globalization with unfair social outcomes and oppose it precisely for this reason; the anti-globalization movement builds on the feeling that prevailing patterns of trading relations and income distribution are unjust and morally reprehensible. As argued below, the issue of inequality therefore needs to be addressed for globalization to be politically sustainable. If it is true that opposition to globalization and opposition to inequality are closely linked, tolerance of inequality becomes a key factor in the political calculus. Protest from a tiny, if vocal, minority can be overridden if a majority of citizens shows little concern for inequality. If this proves to be the case, globalization can be pushed ahead regardless of its social consequences. However, if people resist rising income inequality, policies that ignore this will run into ever greater difficulty.

This article examines how far people consider that inequality is an issue needing to be addressed, and the extent to which they perceive existing inequalities in their own countries and international inequalities as "too large". As Amartya Sen has argued, people's judgements about actual income distribution are a function both of their ideas about what is morally right and just, and of the reality with which they compare these norms (Sen, 2000, p. 60). A statement such as "income is distributed too unevenly" implies that the speaker must have some normative notion of what a proper, justifiable and fair distribution of income should be. However, the opposite does not hold true: if there were a perfect match between reality and someone's ideal, she/he would disagree that inequality is too large and could nonetheless hold strong beliefs about the issue. Still, it is possible that people are largely insensitive to distributive issues and perceive any distribution of income as morally just, as long as everyone gets a fair chance to succeed on the market. Outcome-oriented norms of distributive justice and goals such as "to ensure a just share of the fruits of progress to all", to which the ILO subscribed in the Declaration of Philadelphia (Part III, para. (d)), are thus not necessarily shared by everyone.

An indirect answer to the question whether outcome-oriented norms are generally part of people's value systems can be obtained by investigating how changes in inequality affect the perception of inequality: if people are consistent in their beliefs about the fairness of income distribution, they will speak out louder against inequality the greater the inequality actually is. One analytical approach would be to compare perceptions between countries, another to follow changes over time within countries. This would help explore the ethical foundations of a new vision of globalization built on concepts such as inclusion and equality.

People's beliefs about inequality are also relevant for another reason: their views feed into the political process in the form of demands on politicians. If a majority of the electorate sees a situation as intolerable, policy-makers have a strong incentive to find solutions and to take appropriate action.

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