A 460-page report by Britains official, Orwellian-sounding National Equality Panel reveals that economic inequality in Britain has increased despite the intense social engineering of the last decade that was ostensibly designed to reduce it. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is an unreconstructed egalitarian (though not to the extent of forgoing his own income and pension provisions, which the law permits him to do), reacted to the report by saying that we have much farther to go. We shall always have much farther to go, presumably, until we somehow achieve perfect equality. An interventionist politicians work is never done.
The report, however, contains interesting information, suggesting a far more subtle approach to the question of wealth and poverty than Browns. For example, it listed the average net household wealth in Britain by religious affiliation. The figures were as follows (I convert into American dollars):
These figures conclusively demonstrate what statist social reformers have long sought to deny: that Britain, despite its obvious and pervasive class structure, has long been a very open society (though, thanks to those social reformers, it is becoming increasingly sclerotic and bureaucratically maladministered, thus making social mobility more difficult). The figures show that neither concentration of wealth nor prejudiceprovided that they are not enforced by law or absolutely monolithic and universal, which was never the case in Britaincan prevent the ascent of a social group if it has a mind to ascend.
Most Jews in Britain are the descendants of East European immigrants about 120 years ago who were both extremely poor and despised by the majority of the local population. (Another important group is the descendants of refugees from Nazi Germany who arrived in Britain with nothing but their human capital.) The Jews ascent to relative wealth and social prominence started immediately, notwithstanding the prejudice against them, at a time when the concentration of wealth in a few hands was much greater than it is now. Nor, of course, did they become rich at anyone elses expense: no one had to grow poorer (except relative to them) that they might become richer. They created their own wealth, and wealth for others; they were the beneficiaries of an open society.
The Sikhs arrived en masse some 60 or 70 years after the Jews. For the most part, they, too, arrived with little or nothing. Prejudice against them existed, though perhaps was less severe than that against the Jews, for by then such prejudices had ceased to be respectable. They are now the second-richest religious group in the country, and provided the social engineers do not succeed in stifling the initiative of people altogether, it seems to me likely that in another 30 years or so they will equal the Jews in both wealth and social prominence.
The position of the Muslims is interesting because those of Pakistani origin mostly arrived at the same time as the Sikhs. But even among the Muslims, there are important disparities. Those of Pakistani origin have an average net household worth of $157,000, while those of Bangladeshi origin have an average net household worth of $24,000. The Bangladeshis arrived later than the Pakistanis, so perhaps the figures are not directly comparable, but still they suggest that deep differences are at work.
Overall, the figures demonstrate that, in an open society, cultural attitudes and characteristics are of enormous importance with regard to a groups prospects in that society. Of course, it is no easy matter to change cultural characteristics that are not propitious for economic and social ascent; but the first step, surely, is to destroy the illusion that salvation lies in the hands of political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs whose only effect is to make society sclerotic and thereby transform class into caste.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is Not with a Bang but a Whimper.