Book review: The Spirit Level – Why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett

Although first published under a Labour government in 2009, this book is still highly relevant now we have a Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition. In fact, it is even more relevant because the current political and economic circumstances are forcing Liberal Democrats to think carefully about how much we are worried about inequality of outcome. Wilkinson and Pickett argue that widespread inequality helps increase a huge range of social ills, with the result that everyone suffers – even the most well off. Inequality in their view isn’t just bad for the poor, it’s also bad for the rich.

The Spirit Level: book coverAnalysing data primarily from 21 developed countries and also the different American states, they present evidence of a correlation between the level of inequality in each country (or state) and a range of outcomes: levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, number of teenage births, murders, imprisonment rates and social mobility. More inequality goes with lower trust, more mental illness, higher murder rates and so on.

Within a particular society being richer may go with the problem being smaller for yourself, but across the society as a whole it is the level of inequality that, they say, determines the overall levels of the problem.

The authors therefore argue that rather than securing further economic growth, inequality is now the big challenge facing developed societies: “When the wolf was never far from the door, good times were times of plenty. But for the vast majority of people in affluent countries the difficulties of life are no longer about filling our stomachs, having clear water and keeping warm. Most of us now wish we could eat less rather than more. And, for the first time in history, the poor are – on average – fatter than the rich.”

As statisticians everywhere says, correlation does not mean causation – so the authors go on from their presentation of the case that higher inequality goes with worse outcomes across their measures (and there is a debate over how significant a correlation their evidence shows) to present pieces of evidence that it is inequality which is actually causing those worse outcomes.

In particular, they pick from relatively recent medical advances showing how stress brings about chemical changes in the body that then has very tangible effects. Added to this is evidence that a person’s sense of self-worth has an important impact on their ability to carry out tasks – so again more inequality leads to a worse outcome for individuals. Moreover, “the evolutionary importance of shame and humiliation provides a plausible explanation of why more unequal societies suffer more violence”.

In a way this is very optimistic book, for if all these ills have a common factor – inequality – then in turn doing something about inequality could bring very widespread benefits. That clarity and simplicity of prognosis as to how to improve society makes the book far more optimistic than previous accounts of the ills of modern society such as JK Galbraith’s The Culture of Contentment.

However, this optimistic logic highlights one of the book’s weaknesses. Not only does it rely overwhelmingly on comparisons across countries at the same point in time, rather than in tracking ailments varying over the years, the limited amount of such evidence deployed is almost all of the ‘inequality increased and then things got worse’ form. There is no automatic reason why, even if increasing inequality makes things worse, then decreasing it will make things better. The world is not always symmetrical. Moreover, even if the effect works strongly ‘in reverse’, is it the most cost-effective route to take? If inequality causes stress which causes social ills, is targeting stress going to be more successful?

Despite these questions left unanswered, the book is an important contribution in urging politicians to see social problems as having social solutions; the focus needs to be on society and not on just individuals.

The book has been so influential on political debate already that Policy Exchange has produced a 123 page rebuttal, to which Wilkinson and Pickett have in turn responded and I have looked in more detail at some of the criticisms in How does The Spirit Level withstand a critic?

You can buy The Spirit Level from Amazon.

This review first appeared in Liberal Democrat News.
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  • Andrew Boff 9th Aug '10 - 11:46am

    Inequality is obviously a symptom of poverty, but is it its cause?
    The obsession with inequality dulls any campaign against poverty. It’s far easier to attack the few wealthy rather than address the issues of the much more numerous poor but is that the most effective way of dealing with poverty?

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Aug '10 - 12:43pm

    Yeah I’ve always found the math to be really dodgy on this one. It’s not up to research standards, and appears to be an exercise in finding statistical justification for a pre-determined belief (which you can do for pretty much any belief).

    Not that I have an issue with their conclusion, but I dislike this sort of pop-science pretend proof. It’s not even a very original approach – they just use the old “here’s compelling statistical evidence of a relationship between these variables, now it’s not too big a stretch from there to saying one causes the other, is it? is it? look, some things which aren’t the same have been proven, and those are similar, believe us!” line, but that’s still just showing a relationship, handwaving it into causation, and then pretending that you’ve proved causation. It’s the same thing we see in a thousand other bogus pop-science books.

  • Wilkinson and Pickett are actually quite careful in their claims about what their study does and does not achieve/demonstrate. It has nothing to say about the incidence of problems without a social gradient (eg suicide) or problems associated with economic and social development. Its focus is squarely on developed countries. They are also quite careful to address some of the criticisms related to selective use of data, cultural factors and outlying data from unusual countries having a big impact on the results. They argue that the results are robust to any and all of these criticisms. They recognise that the problems the study addresses would benefit from further study from a longitudinal perspective. Equally importantly their work is not a single study of inequality and social problems in the sense that it builds on a considerable existing base of robust academic evidence to support many of its contentions. My reading of the book is that they recognise that the evidence is not complete, but that piecing together what we know across a range of debates lends weight to the contention that inequality has an important role to play in shaping diverse social problems. They are also quite careful to dissociate themselves from a particular political platform: arguing that there are different ways to equality and it is doesn’t have to mean taxing the rich to give to the poor.

    The reaction of the political Right to this has been very interesting. Saunders work for the policy exchange is a good example of something that constructs a range of straw people and then proceeds to attack it. Christopher Snowden’s book, which is published in association with a right wing think tank, will convince those of a strongly libertarian persuasion that Wilkinson and Pickett are just another bunch of left wing charlatans, but looked at with a bit more perspective it isn’t clear that his case is quite as clearly made out.

    The recent debate at the RSA could be of interest:

  • The criticisms coming from the right appear to consist in little more than declaring inadmissible any data which supports the correlation. While the conclusion of any study like this must inevitably be ‘more work needs to be done’, overall the presented evidence is compelling. I hope people look at the evidence themselves rather than take Mr Papworth’s opinions at face value.

    The authors answer their criticshere

  • Thanks Tom, to answer AndrewR though, the debate I think boils down to three things.

    – Is the correlation suggested science or scientology? To which I think the PE response is a compelling debunk.

    – If you accept the correlation does it mean causation? Which Mark Pack analyses above. I think not, anymore than the reduction in the number of pirates explains global warming,

    – If you accept the correlation and believe it shows causation does it matter?

    The third question to some extent reminds me of debates on the existence of God, and whether this (either way) implies you should lead your life in a certain way. On both points I don’t think it does.

    The Spirit though a powerfully made argument that will appeal to people who already believe the underlying premise. For liberals however, it cannot answer a simple question, when liberty and equality collide, which do you pick? There will always be a range of answers to that question and this camp at least will more often than not tend to pick liberty, equity and pragmatism over chasing utopia through targets.

  • David Allen 9th Aug '10 - 10:52pm

    What comes across most strongly, when one reads the typical climate change denier, is the emotional need of that denier to find a reason not to believe it.

    I fear that the same applies to many of those who would deny the arguments against inequality.

    Back in the dark ages BC (Before Coalition), I’m sure even the most sceptical Lib Dem would have said something like “well, of course, gross poverty and inequality are undesirable, and offend against our deeply felt sense of principle, whatever might or might not be the consequences for all sorts of related issues like happiness and social cohesion”.

    But now there seems to be pressure to work around to saying, well hey, inequality might really be quite a good thing in some respects (is that OK Mr Osborne Sir?)

    How long before the Lib Dems go public with the new slogan “Greed is Good”?

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Aug '10 - 11:00am

    The arguments and analysis in the book are no more dodgy than a lot of the stuff put forward to support extreme free market economics. As with climate change, those in power with ruthlessly pick at the weakness of any arguments that go against them, but will happily accept and push arguments which are just as weak but which endorse the rich getting richer. I mean, for example, such things as crude Laffer curve stuff. I’m not saying there isn’t something in the Laffer curve argument, but there’s a lot of very crude stuff making uncritical use of it. Any crudeness in the “Spirit Level” argument is no worse than most of this. However, those who control the media are obviously going to be happier about pushing Laffer curve than Spirit Level.

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Aug '10 - 2:08pm

    The arguments and analysis in the book are no more dodgy than a lot of the stuff put forward to support extreme free market economics.

    I think extreme free market economics was resoundingly debunked quite a few decades ago.

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