Recommended Reading: The Spirit Level

‘Why do we mistrust people more in the UK than the Japanese do?… The answer: inequality’

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett draws on decades of research by both themselves and other social scientists to present a causal relationship between inequality and a raft of social problems plaguing the developed world. They conclude from this that while there are various routes to more equitable societies, it really is the case that ‘equality is better for everyone’. The book itself admits that the conclusions it draws seem intuitive, even obvious and that many people Wilkinson and Pickett have met whilst promoting the book feel they knew all along that societies with lesser income inequality were happier and more prosperous. They also found that many such people desired greater income equality and were concerned with the prevalence of materialism and consumerism in the developed market democracies that the book focuses on.

A quote found on the cover of the book sums its findings up well: ‘The evidence is hard to dispute’. Wilkinson and Pickett go to such lengths in The Spirit Level to substantiate their belief that there is a significant relationship between inequality and social problems and to counter any arguments against their conclusion that it is hard to come away anything other than convinced. They present the overarching correlation between inequality and social problems using their ‘Index of Health and Social Problems’ and then go on to show correlation between inequality and higher imprisonment rates, higher homicide rates, higher teenage pregnancy rates, increased prevalence of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and heart disease. They display this correlation for 25 economically developed market democracies for which suitable data is available as well as for the 50 states of the USA. In places their attempts to prove everything beyond doubt become repetitive but such detail on the processes used is necessary when publishing findings likely to be met with considerable resistance by many.

An example of the reasoning behind the correlation between inequality and some social issues affecting predominantly young people is as follows. Homicide and violence rates as well as teenage pregnancy rates are associated with status competition and poor social mobility. If young people with low social status (as people are acutely aware of social status in more unequal societies) feel their status to be challenged or threatened then they will respond violently due to insecurity. Often with teenage pregnancy, having their own children at an early age allows young women to accelerate their transition to adulthood and improve their social status and to receive love from a child that they don’t from people around them.

The book opens with the premise that economic growth is no longer correlated with increased life expectancy or higher levels of happiness in developed countries- the Easterlin Paradox. Although it is a macroeconomic objective pursued by most governments and paid great attention to by economists, increasing GDP per capita no longer improves the lives of people in economically advanced economies. Furthermore growth itself can wider income differences, increasing the prevalence and severity of all these health and social problems. Wilkinson and Pickett agree therefore that such countries should pursue a more equitable distribution of wealth and income to improve living standards and happiness for all members of a society. The Spirit Level explains that there are different means by which to achieve more egalitarian societies. Japan for example has relatively little in the way of government and welfare payments as income differences are lesser in the first place, whereas Sweden takes a different approach and uses taxes and benefits to redistribute wealth after wages have been paid. Both however perform consistently well on a range of health and social issues.

Reception to the book across the political spectrum suggests there is a widespread appetite for greater income equality. In the US, people tend to underestimate the scale of the issue and 90% would prefer swedish levels of inequality to levels of income inequality in the US. The same is the case in the UK where most people would prefer reduced inequality despite underestimating current levels. Wilkinson and Pickett then extend their thinking to climate change, finding that both logically and in terms of evidence more unequal societies pollute more and contribute more to the enhanced greenhouse effect. In more unequal societies there is increased status competition. As people see others significantly better off than themselves they are compelled to consume more in an attempt to improve their social standing and happiness (in developed countries, relative incomes are more important than absolute incomes in determining happiness). This leads to a culture of consumerism and materialism, with a ‘bicycling’ effect by which people are ‘kicked’ by those above them and do the same to those below them in terms of making others less happy with what they have. Increased consumerism and lower social cohesion as well as a culture of competition and a lack of altruism in less equal societies means they generate more waste and pollution. It has been found that business leaders in more equal societies are much more likely to agree to government and international measures to tackle climate change than those in less equal countries.

The researchers conclude then that all that is required now is to establish the necessary political will to implement policies to redistribute income and wealth to allow for more prosperous societies. Increased income equality yields benefits for all members of society. Although the poorest benefit most, even the rich live longer and are healthier in more equal societies. It is somewhat depressing therefore that despite there being such detailed evidence and clear-cut conclusions, little seems to have been done to act upon the findings. David Cameron referred to the Spirit Level shortly before being elected Prime Minister, saying in a lecture: “Research by Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator”. But in his 2015 Conservative manifesto, Cameron pledged to increase the threshold for higher rate income tax to £50,000- lifting 800,000 people out of the bracket and costing the Treasury £5.6 billion per year- increasing the wealth of those on incomes double the national average and reducing the ability of the government to support the poorest in society cannot be seen as a positive measure to reduce inequality and create a more harmonious society. Wilkinson and Pickett aim therefore to take a bottom up approach to publicising the book, slowly educating and informing people of their findings through The Equality Trust and encouraging people to write to their MPs and create local groups to campaign for and raise awareness of the issue. Further details can be found at:

One thought on “Recommended Reading: The Spirit Level

  1. The statistical work in “The Spirit Level” has been widely criticised – cherry picking of countries etc. See Christopher Snowdon’s book “The Spirit Level Delusion”. If the outliers Japan an USA are removed from the scattergrams in TSL then associations disappear except for the infant deaths data.

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