Simon Carr: Who's rich when others are richer?

If your neighbour gets a promotion, that could create serious problems

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Inequality. How are we handling that? The recent research from the Fabian Society suggests the public are well ahead – or well behind – informed opinion. People seem generally to accept the idea of "fairly deserved inequality". The very rich, it is assumed, have more money because they are cleverer and work harder than people on benefits. It may or may not be true, but it's what people believe.

As we know, the poor we will always have with us. It says so in the Bible. And now it's also clear we'll always have the rich. Ever more of them as time goes on: there are a hell of a lot more rich people in the world than there used to be, and equality theory tells us this must create problems. It's not immediately clear why this should be the case, but so it seems to be.

You may have enough to provide for yourself and family – but because others have more ... you find yourself wounded. Your children may have steak dinners and Playstations, and they almost certainly have more than you had at their age. And yet they exhibit the symptoms of deprivation.

If you're 10 years old and you have a personal stereo, you feel rich until another 10-year-old shows you his iPhone.

It's not something we grow out of. I felt I was doing pretty well on one of my China trips, paying twice the economy price for a seat in Premium. As Economy Class filed past, I luxuriated in my four extra inches of leg room and the seat back video. But then some Business Class parents deposited their children and their nanny in the seats beside me. Then I felt poor. And I didn't like it one bit.

If you're making £50,000 a year, it takes too much imagination to envy the man making £5m a year. His life is a mystery. He can talk about Gstaadt and his boat without causing any stab of pain.

But if your neighbour gets a promotion and moves from Sainsbury to Waitrose – that could create some very serious problems. "True, it costs a little more but you see, we really do find it that little bit better."

How you suddenly want to burn his house down. It's not envy either. You don't even want to shop at Waitrose. You just feel the sting of some new inferiority as Mr Jones makes ground, and looks back at you from a distance.

Being a constructive pessimist, I do fear that increases in social mobility won't solve this problem. Probably the reverse. The boundary disputes will get worse because they will happen more often. Nonetheless, we want social mobility for moral, practical and spiritual reasons.

We need two things to be able to cope with it and help it along:

First, we need a system of manners that provides public space for different ranks to meet in very different social arenas on terms of amiable equality. I still don't see binmen and equality theoreticians sitting easily at the same table. Political correctness may need to go a little madder yet.

Second, we need to inculcate virtue into the young. Virtue! We can start by playing Snakes and Ladders with them at an early age (the board game, I mean). It is the virtue that underlies the manners. Decency, respect, restraint.

My God, that's a hard school. I thought we'd lost the need of it. But I was wrong.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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