The book cover

The Spirit Level and Equality

I’ve just finished reading The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, at last. I’ve heard this book quoted a lot lately, and I was keen to read it for myself.

The premise of the book is simple: Within the rich market democracies, the more equal a county is, the less health and social problems it has. More equal countries not only have less of the bad stuff like obesity, mental illness and violence, they also perform better in terms of life expectancy, child wellbeing and trust.

The book cover

The book cover

These findings are based on 50 combined years of research by the two authors, who are both academics. As well as their main research which uses secondary data from official sources such as the UN and World Bank, they’ve also reviewed approximately 200 academic papers on the subject.

The book contains a large number of simple line graphs that show the relationship between income inequality and the nine health and social issues covered in the book. Their evidence and analysis seems very watertight, and in the new edition they also reply to their critics in an extra chapter at the end.

To me, this book confirms what I see to be obvious: inequality divides people and more equality would improve social cohesion. However, in this world it isn’t enough to simply have intuition – you need proof. Well, here is the proof. I really recommend this book to everyone – whatever your existing thoughts on equality.

Two notes need making.

Firstly, please don’t get all upset about socialism. All the countries in Wilkinson and Pickett’s analysis are market democracies. The Scandinavian nations along with Japan are very equal whilst being capitalist. ‘Big Government’ is not even necessarily needed for greater equality, as Japan is the most equal despite spending almost as little as the USA on welfare. Also, no one is suggesting total income equality. I’ve clarified before that I’m not proposing that. But having a huge gulf between rich and poor is not a healthy situation for a society.

Secondly, the evidence in this book show that greater equality would benefit all sections of society, not just the poor. Admittedly, the poorest would have the most to gain as these health and social problems are most common among the poorest people, but the benefits would accrue to the middle class and rich as well. Even the super rich would be better off living in a society with less crime and more trust, for example.

The book doesn’t include poorer countries, simply because in these cases health and social problems are likely to be caused by a severe lack of resources and wealth, not inequality as such. Well, global inequality. But the point is that once a nation is rich enough to provide basic necessities to the vast majority of it’s population, it is relative wealth that matters, not actual wealth. This is illustrated sharply by the USA, which is the richest country in the world and yet performs dismally on all the nine health and social issues covered in The Spirit Level. Graph after graph shows how within the rich nations, GDP is unrelated to these issues but income inequality is tightly correlated.

Wilkinson and Pickett are largely positive and pragmatic about their findings, pointing out that governments now have a policy handle on the wellbeing of whole populations. They note that increasing equality is a much cheaper and more effective remedy to social ills than the fragmented and very expensive solutions of ever more prisons, police, psychiatrists, rehab centres and the like.

I seriously hope politicians take heed of this book. Apparently UK Prime Minister David Cameron praised it highly in public after it’s publication. But has he done anything about it? Not that I can see!

Still, it’s a huge step to have cohesive evidence.
Again, I highly recommend reading this book!


4 thoughts on “The Spirit Level and Equality

  1. Tegan, GDP is such a misleading statistic to base a countries economy by. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the south the amount of money spent in restoration and repairs was counted as positive for the GDP, same with the clean up of oil spills. In the case of Katrina, the poor in that area were even worse off than before.

    I agree with the conclusions from the book. Living in the US we see all kinds of crime that comes from the inequality in income, and as more jobs are lost or hours cut the crime is getting worse. I used to work at a bank as a teller and would say that I could tell how bad the economy was, not from listening to the news, but by how many bank robberies took place in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    1. Thanks for reading Lois (: Yeah, GDP is a stupid measure really. I read somewhere that it “adds up all the costs and incomes into one big useless number”. Even things like building prisons are counted. It’s just a ‘busyness’ measure.
      And I can fully believe that about the bank robberies!

    1. Thanks Rentz, and you should definitely read it! It’s basically saying that what matters is how rich you are in relation to the others around you, not how rich you are full stop. So within the rich nations GDP and average income is pretty much irrelevant, what matters is the level of income in/equality. Many health and social problems are more common among the poor. However, people with exactly the same income (adjusted to reflect actual purchasing power) in more equal countries are much less likely to have these problems. There’s a some psychology in the book about status related stress and stuff like that. It’s a very good read, and I think crucial for justifying the ‘equitable’ part of steady state economics. Along with the fact that more equal societies are less consumerist, this offers another good reason why a steady state should have a high level of equality. (:

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