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Sandra León. Doctora en Ciencias Políticas y profesora en la Universidad de York (Reino Unido)

Sandra León. Doctor of Political Sciences and professor at the University of York (UK)

Inequality corrodes the European project. Thus preached an article in El País, referring to the overwhelming evidence of increasing inequality in Europe. It may that at this point in time the data on the economic gap between individuals and countries does not surprise anyone. The effects of the crisis on the gap between rich and poor are so glaring in the statistics as they are in the reality of every citizen who steps out onto the street. Impoverishment is the first and most direct consequence of the unequal distribution of the burdens imposed by austerity policies, but what are the consequences of inequality beyond poverty?

The main fear that is often associated with inequality is the rise of populism. The argument is that the frustration of citizens by their inability to change the course of political and economic abuse of power can lead to a radicalization of political support. However, along with possible outbreaks of helpless citizens, perhaps the deepest and corrosive risk of inequality is to be found in the breakdown of cohesion on which social life is based. A society with large inequalities is highly unable to reach basic agreements on rights and duties.

Empathy, or ability to understand or sympathize with the position of the other, is a fundamental pillar of social coexistence. It is not something new. When the Athenians of ancient Greece decided that the positions of political responsibility would rotate among those with the status of citizens, thinking they would prevent the excesses of those who governed. Those who took power for a while knew that soon they would cease to be leaders and return to being ruled, thus reducing incentives for opportunism among politicians. Stepping into the shoes of someone who had to submit to the power predisposed them to making fairer decisions.

Inequality erodes social coexistence

The same empathic logic -that of thinking about another social position- is the exercise which underlies the theories of justice. If we did not know where in society we had to live in, and we could imagine more or less wealthy, better or worse with intelligence or more or less benefited from a favourable environment, then we would be better able to choose the principles of justice that should govern a society. Internalize the uncertainty of our social destiny leads us to choose a set of obligations and rights fairer and more acceptable to all.

Thus inequality erodes the empathy that feeds social coexistence. The more different we are, the harder it is to think of ourselves in the condition of the other and find common interests. Moreover, and more importantly, we will be less inclined to submit to the decisions of those who we believe have nothing to do with us.

Where does this social gap open? It could be that first distrust increases between the groups of citizens who have less, those who usually show higher levels of disaffection, to finish up by extending between the richest. The mainstay of social trust is then relegated to an increasingly meagre middle class. According to the latest European Social Survey, this is the social x-ray in some countries where very low levels of social trust and inequality are combined. In Portugal, Cyprus, Russia, Slovakia and Bulgaria the relationship between income and social trust has an inverted U shape. Those who count less on the goodwill of their fellow citizens are, above all, the poorest groups. However, unlike other countries, that assessment does not improve linearly with income, because trust tends to fall slightly between the groups with higher incomes. The more a society is different, less abundant are the positive reviews of others, especially those that least resemble each other: the extremes of the income distribution.

Inequality corrodes the European project

The opposite occurs in more equal societies. Citizens of the Nordic countries display more positive assessments of how much justice, good faith or help can be expected from others. In these countries, the gap between those who have much and those who have little is lower, encouraging the perception of the other as an equal. Surely, this explains why the opinions of the others are very similar between different social groups, which in turn indicates a high level of social cohesion.

In Spain, data from the European Social Survey (see Figure 1) show levels of social trust slightly above the average of European countries, which stands at 5. If the perceptions of citizens in Spain are compared to Income, it can be seen that those who are in a better off tend to have higher levels of social trust than those with less income. However, the correlation between confidence and income is less than that seen for all European countries in the sample. What makes Spain show relatively high levels of social trust when compared with other European countries such as Spain, is that they have high levels of inequality (such as Bulgaria, Portugal, Romania). According to the data of public opinion in the CIS, in Spain there has been no erosion of social trust with the arrival of the economic crisis (see figure 3), although it is possible that the enormous growth of inequality over the past have effects medium and long term.

In short, inequality corrodes the European project. However, that only shows a portion of the ballast to which Europe is condemning itself to carry. The countries at the tail end have also two additional punishments imposed: the most immediate and visible, the impoverishment of the majority of everyone. Another potentially corrosive one, slow and long-term: its growing incapacity to reach broad agreement on a set of rules that should regulate social life.

#Sandra León collaborates with the Alternatives Foundation and is part of the group "Paper stones". Her latest publication is "Regional Financing. Keys to understand a (never-ending) debate ", Alianza Publishers (2015).

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