RIP Tony Atkinson: Here he is on our personal responsibility for reducing inequality

January 2, 2017 0 By Duncan Green

Tony Atkinson, one of the world’s great thought leaders on poverty and inequality, died on New Year’s Day. Ctony_atkinsonombining intellectual rigour and a profound commitment to social justice, his life’s work epitomised the economics profession at its best. Here he is in the final chapter of his 2015 book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’

‘I do not accept that rising inequality is inevitable: it is not solely the product of forces beyond our control. There are steps that can be taken by government, acting individually or collectively, by firms, by trade unions and consumer organizations, and by us as individuals…..

It is individuals who will ultimately determine whether the proposals set out here are implemented and whether the ideas are pursued. They will do so indirectly in their capacity as voters, and – perhaps today more importantly – as lobbyists through campaign groups and social media, acting as countervailing power to the paid members of the lobbying profession. Sending that email message to your elected representative makes a difference. But individuals can influence the extent of inequality in our society directly by their own actions as consumers, as savers, as investors, as workers, or as employers. This is most evident in terms of individual philanthropy. Where transfers of resources not only are valuable in themselves but also provide a powerful signal of what we should like to see done by our governments.

atkinson-coverBut transfers are only part of the story. Consumers make a difference by buying from suppliers who are paying a living wage, or whose products are fairtrade. Individuals, acting on their own or collectively, make a difference by supporting local shops and enterprises. Savers can ask about he salary policy pursued by their shareholder-owned bank; they can transfer their funds to a mutual organization. Market forces may limit the range of outcomes, but they leave room for other concerns to come into play, such as fairness and a sense of social justice, ethical decisions, and – taken together – our decisions can make a contribution to reducing the extent of inequality.

If we are willing to use today’s greater wealth to address these challenges, and accept that resources should be shared less unequally, there are indeed grounds for optimism.’

And here’s the FT’s excellent obituary