Book Review – The Spirit Level

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Penguin 2010
ISBN 978 0 141 03236 8

This is an exciting and important book. The authors draw on a wealth of social research to demonstrate that life would be better if we had much more equal incomes. Intuitively this reviewer has long believed that, but Wilkinson and Pickett are able to show that it is true by presenting the facts in graphical form. Moreover it is not just that lower income people would be better off but those on higher incomes would benefit too – in terms of quality of life.

The countries studied are mainly the most developed – 23 out of the 50 wealthiest in the world (the 27 which were not chosen were because they were either very small or did not have full comparable statistics). The other societies looked at are states of the USA where, because of the federal system, there are considerable variations from state to state. One of the striking things to emerge is that the patterns revealed are very similar across a range of issues – physical health, mental health, obesity, teenage births, educational performance, violence, imprisonment, social mobility. One also finds the same countries in approximately the same positions on most of the graphs (with occasional exceptions). The two extremes are occupied by the USA at one end (the bad one) and Japan (the good one).

Close to Japan are the Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark. Britain usually comes in a little worse than average. One of the striking facts to emerge is that looking at rich and poor countries on the world scale life expectancy increases rapidly as incomes increase but only up to a certain level (where the middle income countries are now) and then it begins to level off. However there are still notable differences among the rich countries when inequality within the countries is used as the measure rather than average income. Using the measure of inequality the authors demonstrate how physical and mental health levels, teenage pregnancy, drug use, crime, educational attainment and social mobility are all strongly determined by the level of inequality in their societies. The authors suggest that the cause of this pattern is due to individuals’ social status within unequal societies and the arising anxiety and long-term stress arising.

Two countries which have shown dramatic increases in income inequality in recent decades are the USA and the UK. In the UK the second half of the Thatcher period saw a steep rise in inequality which peaked in the early 1990s but has fallen little since then. In the USA inequality began to rise in the Carter period and rose steadily until the Clinton period when it levelled off. In both countries the rise in income inequality was about 40%. Countries which did not show an increase in inequality in the 1980s and 90s include France, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, and Japan. In Japan, defeat in WWII followed by a benign occupation by the Americans resulted in a break with the past and a substantially new society which was much more egalitarian. Interestingly the smaller income range there is not produced by large government intervention but by pay rates that are less extreme than in most other countries. Sweden on the other hand uses government intervention to redistribute wealth but the result for both countries is good.

Although not the prime focus of the book, sustainability is also looked at – and how could it be avoided since it is now central to the future of the human race. Using data from the UN and the WWF the authors conclude that only Cuba has a reasonable quality of life without exceeding the biocapacity of the earth. However they also say that more could reach that state by using more environmentally friendly technology including renewable power generation. But a warning against depending on new technology alone is given as they point out that greener technology can be defeated by greater consumption, as has been observed already in some places. Nor would it be sufficient on its own. The aim of sustainability would be greatly aided if the consumerist philosophy of the last 50 years could lose its hold on people. The authors don’t mention Gandhi but I am sure they would approve of all attempts to follow his simplification of lifestyle. As Wilkinson and Pickett write:

“If, to cut carbon emissions, we need to limit economic growth severely in the rich countries, then it is important to know that this does not mean sacrificing improvements in the real quality of life – in the quality of life as measured by health, happiness, friendship and community life, which really matters.”

How far we have to go in the direction of egalitarianism in Britain at least is amply illustrated by the outrageous salaries and expenses and bonuses given to CEOs of many large companies and banks, in spite of a major economic crisis and prospect of a significant reduction in public services.

The authors, who are basically academics, are sufficiently convinced of the importance of their findings that they have set up a campaigning organisation – The Equality Trust – to promote the advantages of egalitarianism. As they say, unless there is a groundswell of public opinion the politicians will not take up the idea.

George Paxton

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Categories: Gandhian Economics, Reviews & Arts


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