sociology, wealth, and human well being

Sociology is driven by values. A lot of sociologists study inequality because they think that explicitly, or implicitly, that understanding inequality will be a step toward either reducing it or its negative effects. However, an emphasis on inequality among individuals misses an even bigger picture: the link between wealth, as conventionally understood, and well being. Yes, some forms of individual level inequality are associated with negative outcomes (e.g., the SES-gradient in health) but these often pale in comparison to the differences in outcomes between wealthy and non-wealthy countries. The biggest determinant of your health or lifespan is not your income, it’s the income of your country. Furthermore, countries that are wealthier tend to be better at supporting rights and privileges that sociologists tend to favor. For example, wealth is a big predictor of political stability and competitive elections. Wealthier nations are also those with more minority rights and women’s rights.

If we assume the above statements are roughly true, then the major question for sociology is “what social or cultural conditions lead to wealth building institutions?” To even begin to answer that, we would need to understand what institutions lead to wealth.  Roughly speaking, we know from development economics that the correlates of wealth and GDP are fairly straightforward. An old paper by Sachs and Warner summarizes the point, which I think, still holds up: countries can be wealthy long as they are NOT:

  1. Socialist/communist
  2. Internally violent (constant unrest)
  3. Repressive in the sense that depriving people of all rights

Empirically, countries that fall in any of these three categories fall way, way below others that are not socialist, relatively peaceful and enforce rights. Applying these definitions, it explains why the US and Sweden are close in terms of wealth (e.g., both allow private property, are relatively peaceful and protect a wide range of others) but far away from North Korea. It also explain the economic growth of some nations which liberalized (e.g., China improved on criteria #1).

If you believe this analysis, then you get to the punchline: sociology’s most pressing normative mission is understanding when people support socialism/communism, support violence against fellow citizens, and support predatory governments that jail dissidents. These things all make people much, much worse off. Yes, things like ethnic minority rights and reproductive rights are important, but they are way, way, way easier if you live in a non-socialist and peaceful society with a non-predatory state.

Bottom line: If sociology really believes in well being, we need to understand the culture that supports bourgeois society, we shouldn’t be trying to overturn it. 



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Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2020 at 4:50 pm

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Surprised to see that rule of law is not one of the hallmarks of a well-generating society.

    I work a lot in Malaysia, which has relatively strong legal and regulatory institutions. But it is also deeply corrupt, in a genteel way. Few actual shakedowns, but intense govt involvement in larger enterprises for favors and other ‘soft’ payoffs. Senior managers spend a lot of time managing the favor network that keep them in business.

    My theory: this took so much time and energy within Malaysia Air that nobody had much brainspace to ask basic questions like: ‘is Flight 370 flying over a de facto war zone? ‘ Or ‘who’s manning air defense, sober trained military or drunk militiamen?’

    You can see the relevance for the US. If the Administration behaves capriciously and can overrule regulations and court decisions, managers will rationally chose to protect their equity by doing the same thing, sucking up to government. Despite whatever benefits they get from tax cuts, protection from liability etc., they may get scared enough of a lawless environment that they bail on the GOP.

    I ask you because I’ve seen nada on this possibility in the business press.


    Don Frazier

    February 13, 2020 at 10:45 pm

  2. PS “…wealth-generating society.” duh…


    Don Frazier

    February 13, 2020 at 10:48 pm

  3. The average lifespan in Cuba is 79.4 years (2016).

    The average lifespan in the United States is 78.7 years (2016).

    The difference in lifespan between rich and poor Americans is 10-15 years.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 14, 2020 at 12:18 pm

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