“The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett

ISBN 978-0-241-95429-4. “The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone” written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket was published by Penguin with new postscript in 2010 (originally by Allen Lane in 2009). The authors are both Professors of Epidemiology in London and York. That means they are bright people who trace the root causes of disease and ill health in human populations; why do some groups of people develop certain problems whilst others do not? What they have found (and demonstrate in this book) may not be totally original but they have bought all the evidence together in one place. And, oh boy – is this dynamite. We may be familiar with quality-of-life issues but, it seems, we didn’t know the half of it.

Shorty before reading this we had read and reviewed “Affluenza” by Oliver James. The two books dovetail together remarkably well and can be seen as flip sides of the same coin. James looked upon modern industrial society as being sick and made so by our modern economic system. Our culture now emphasises extrinsic values over intrinsic worth, ie by what you own rather than by who you are. James backed up his theory by interviewing numerous people in the advanced industrial nations. The authors of the Spirit Level do reference James’ book quite briefly and then again, obliquely, towards the back of the book when they describe the widening income differences across English-speaking countries as like catching “the disease” [page 244].

“The Spirit Level” takes the statistical route to reach largely similar conclusions to those in Affluenza but whilst the James book was a work of art, “The Spirit Level” is a work of science. It is a different creature altogether. You could marginalise & pigeon-hole “Affluenza” as the left-wing rantings of some pop-psychologist nutter but Spirit Level is much harder to ignore. Indeed it caused a minor earthquake in our political system. It was read widely. It was taken seriously. It was, for want of a better word, a threat. For over thirty years we were told that equality no longer mattered. All attempts at trying to achieve social equality were counter-productive and that the only way to achieve the maximum economic benefit for the most number of people was through un-constrained capitalism. Greed became ‘good’ and it was every man for himself in an era of trickle-down economics. What we learnt in the Spirit Level is that the narrow pursuit of selfish personal wealth has impoverished EVERYBODY in society. Not just the poor (who got poorer) but also the rich (who got richer).

This is the most important point to be made. The work that Wilkinson and Pickett did strongly suggests that equality really is better for EVERYBODY. Across the entire social scale from the very rich to the very poor your wellbeing is linked to the disparity between rich and poor. The authors have the evidence to prove this. Of course this would always be controversial. It overturns thirty to forty years of economic orthodoxy. If the pursuit of person wealth does not lead to the greater wellbeing of society then the whole concept of trickle-down is worthless. There is no point everyone being a bit better off financially if our lives are blighted by ill-health and mental problems. In short, we made ourselves sick, all of us. No amount of extra income could pay for the loss of social worth and security that we have suffered.

For this reason there has been some soul searching and an awful lot of backlash. Many economists and right-wing politicians simply do not want to be told they are wrong. It is like proving that God does not exist. It is a blasphemy that dare not speak its name. Our culture is still unprepared to challenge the position of the all-powerful market and no amount of evidence is going to help.

There will be many from the left-wing of politics who will have taken Spirit Level at face value because it confirm their biases. It would be foolish to be that niave. We should all be doubtful, sceptical and question this book lest we fall prey to confirmation bias. After all just showing a relationship is not in itself proof of causality. So we read this with a disbelieving viewpoint… However, just as we thought we could spot the obvious flaws the authors addressed everyone of our doubts. It is almost flawless. Almost.

“Almost” because the case made may not always be that convincing from a lay-man’s point of view. Maybe us mere mortals are not equipped with the intellectual architecture to understand some of the technical arguments, but taken in its totality this entire book remains very convincing. One of the reasons for this is that there are over 200 previous research papers that had reached the same conclusion. The back of book has over five-hundred citations. They have been thorough in addressing every doubt the reader may have – even if you don’t always understand their explanation.

What you learn through this book can sometimes be counter-intuitive to the point of being astonishing. For example, amongst rich countries there is NO relationship between healthcare spending and longevity. Clearly there is some other cultural factor in play. Maybe we should be less surprised. Some of the stats quoted in this book are not that unfamiliar but the Spirit Level gives them a new edge:

“During the Second World War, for example, working-class incomes rose by 9 per cent, while incomes of the middle-class fell by 7 per cent; rates of relative poverty were halved. The resulting sense of camaraderie and social cohesion not only led to better health – crime rates also fell.”

But what’s the point? Where does it lead us? The authors are nearly two-thirds through this edition of the book before getting on to the section on ‘equality and sustainability’. Their big idea is that inequality makes it hard to fight climate change. Climate change is driven by emissions. Emissions are driven by consumption. Consumption is driven by inequality. To fight consumption and reach a steady state economic situation you need to fight the inequality that drives consumption. We need a new emphasis on the quality of life not how many toys we have.

“Greater equality can help us develop the public ethos and commitment to working together which we need  if we are going to solve the problems which threaten us all.”

With talk like that there is no mistaking what sort of threat such ideas are to the status quo of dog-eat-dog. They might as well tell us that we all need to love one-another. They may not call it “Transition” but the sort of society the authors see necessary sounds eerily familiar:

“The key is to map out ways in which the new society can begin to grow within and alongside the institutions it may gradually marginalise and replace. That is what making change is really about. Rather than simply waiting for government to do it for us, we have to start making it in our lives and in the institutions of our society…”

The authors are also cheerleaders for co-operative forms of organising Companies where employee ownership is more flexible which “enables systems to evolve to suit any situation”. Echoes again of the ‘experimentation’ inherent in the Transition Movement. However… It won’t make any difference how you phrase it, for anyone who cannot see their way out of the existing thought pattern/paradigm this is a call for communism. This would be a mistake. The authors address this question twice. High spending (“big”) governments usually exist in unequal nations. Low-spending (“small”) Government exists in more equal societies. Why?

“…governments may spend either to prevent social problems or, where income differences have widened, to deal with the consequences.” – “…the argument for greater equality is not necessarily an argument for big government. Given that there are many ways of diminishing inequality, what matters is creating the necessary political will to pursue any of them.”

Unlike in the Oliver book these authors leave the gloves on in their criticisms. They do single out neo-liberal policies but point out that:

“…while changes in government ideology may sometimes be among the causes of changes in income distribution, this is not part of  a package of policies intended to increase the prevalence of social problems. Their increase is, instead, an unintended consequence of the changes in income distribution.”

Later they quote Nobel Prize Winning Economist Paul Krugman who argued that:

“…rather than market forces, rising inequality was driven by ‘changes in institutions, norms and political power’. “

No doubt the young turks in the Tory party may believe they are creating a utopia but clearly their ideas are doomed to failure. (For many in the anti-capitalist movement this will be unconvincing. The rich get richer because they want to be richer and they do not care who pays as long as it isn’t them. Likewise power tends to be more focused around concentrations of wealth. Hence the system maintains itself regardless of the wide-eyed, Utopian idealism that may have spawned it in the 1980s.) Wilkinson and Pickett believe that human beings are naturally egalitarian. We have a natural drive to make our societies fair and just. It has taken a great deal of social conditioning to stop us from caring.

In this edition of the book the authors have added a chapter to deal with their critics. Their work has been attacked to the point that a book has been published that attempts to refute the entire premise of the Spirit Level (see “The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything” by Christopher Snowdon ISBN-10: 0956226515). While they patiently address the many misrepresentations of their work, point by point, their frustration as to the motivations of their attackers is very clear.

“Academics in every field of course criticise each other’s work all the time: that is part of the normal process of scientific progress. Attacks made for ideological reasons are quite different.”

They go onto discuss Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming“. All such ideas are perceived as some kind of threat to free market fundamentalism:

“If this is their motivation then it is based upon a serious misconception, one which is almost the opposite of the truth. Greater inequality actually increases the need for big government – for more police, more prisons, more health,  and social service of every kind.”

Likewise an attack by “The Tax Payers’ Alliance” earned this rebuke:

“…some societies achieve greater equality with unusually low taxation because they have smaller earning difference before tax.”

However no amount of facts will overcome the culturally-based ideology of a minority. In the case of the Snowdon book it is written on the cover page “the Left’s New Theory of Everything” which clearly the Spirit Level is NOT. The fact that it has been embraced without question by the Left appears to be reason enough for the ideologues of the Right to reject it without question: my enemy’s friend is also my enemy.

No review of this book can quite do it justice. It needs to be read and digested. You do not need to hold onto any particular ideology of the right or the left. You can read it with scepticism. Whatever you do – just read it. It is one of the few books that you just have to read before you pop your clogs. It builds a case for a stunning reversal in almost everything our modern culture has held dear since 1980. We believed that the pursuit of monetary wealth would make everyone better off. We already knew that this created inequality and stagnating well-being. But until now we could not quite see how these matters were related. If we all had more money why didn’t we feel better off? Why did we vote every election for smaller and smaller government only to see it get bigger and bigger? Why did we strive for lower taxes only to see them increase? The reasons are all here. We made a mistake. The experiment is over. If we want low taxation and small government we need a cultural change. This change cannot be enforced top down by big government. This is the missing piece of the jigsaw. Life is more than just more stuff – it also represents the attainment of quality and wellbeing. Some things simply cannot be measured.

So… No more – times up! If we want to create that better world of tomorrow, where our nations can tackle their social ills, resource restrictions and the end of climate stability, then we must embrace new values. Judging by the unthinking dogma unleashed in the attacks upon this book we are a long, long way from there today. It will be a generational transition, but do we have the time?


“The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett — 1 Comment

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