Book review: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

The Spirit Level is a book written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in 2009. The book’s main argument is that inequality within a society has serious consequences for that society: people don’t trust each other anymore, there is an increase of anxiety and sickness, and it encourages excessive consumerism. It is important to note that this argument is about rich countries with developed economies. Countries that are more unequal clearly perform more badly in eleven various societal or health related problems: physical health, mental health, drug use, education, imprisoned population, obesitas, social mobility, community life, violence, teen pregnancies and the wellbeing of children. The book proofs this with charts that are also available online: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/about-inequality/spirit-level

The book’s general message is that we are rich enough: economic growth in the rich countries has reached a point where it does not longer lead to living standard improvements. On the contrary, in some cases this growth can even be harmful for health and wellbeing. If developed countries would focus on making people’s income more equal to the level of income equality in the Scandinavian countries or Japan, we would have more holidays, we would be skinnier, we would live longer, we would trust each other more… the list goes on. Yet increasing inequality is a key feature of many countries these last decades.

When we look at the Gini-coefficient before taxes and transfers for several countries we see a sharp increase for most of them since at least 1990, if not longer. [1] The Gini-coefficient is a number that is calculated on the basis of income tax data: a number of 0 means total income equality, a number of 1 means that one person owns everything. After taxes and transfers, which have a redistributing effect, we see a moderate increase in the Gini-coefficient for most countries since 1990. For the full list of Gini-coefficients of OECD countries go to: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD. At the top you can select Gini before or after taxes in the “measures” menu.

The authors point out that the choice for more economic growth over more equality in rich countries has negative consequences for life quality which can be seen all around us. Inequality leads to shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases teen pregnancies, violence, obesitas, the number of prisoners and addictions; it destroys the social relations between individuals, and it is the motor of a behavior geared towards consumption that is increasingly endangering the planet itself.

The information in different datasets with credible sources like the UN, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, the OECD … is brought together in one coherent framework which makes it difficult to deny inequality and its consequences.

This data is used to create a series of scatter diagrams that are almost always showing the same pattern and are at the same time the proof of a wide occurrence of various societal problems. In almost every index of life quality, wellbeing or need there is a strong correlation between the level of economic inequality in a country and the observed societal outcome in the chosen subject area. Almost always we find Japan and the Scandinavian countries in the favourable area of the diagram, and almost always we find the UK, the US and Portugal in the unfavourable area, with countries like Canada or the continental European countries somewhere in the middle.

This has nothing to do with the total wealth of a country, or even the average income per capita. The US is one of the richest countries in the world and is ranked among the highest in per capita income, yet is has the lowest life expectancy in the group of developed countries and a level of societal violence, in particular homicide numbers, that is off the charts.

The diagrams also show that it is not only the poor who are affected in a negative way by inequality, but entire societies from the highest to the lowest. The UK performs noticeable worse than most other OECD countries, yet her societal problems are still not as bad as those in the US. For example, twice as many Americans are affected by diabetes compared to British people, who in turn are worse off than most OECD countries. Whatever criteria one chooses, the evidence for more equality is increasing. As the authors put it: “the relationship between inequality, bad health and societal problems is too strong to attribute it to coincidence.”


The most uncomfortable aspect of the book perhaps is the insight that the way we are living, the way society is divided up, poses a serious threat to our mental wellbeing. The authors describe unequal societies as dysfunctional: consumerism, social isolation, alienation from each other and anxieties. Our society, our economic model of growth has institutionalised and internalised economic and social inequality in such a way that a considerable amount of people are mentally “ill”. Then what kind of growth is this?

Japan and the Scandinavian countries also show that more equality is a matter of political choice, and that the idea there is nothing wrong with being rich, still widely espoused in our political establishment, is a lot more damaging than first meets the eye.

The book ends in a positive way with a transitional programme to make sick societies healthier again. A society in which people can feel better again and can interact freely with each other can only come into existence when those in the lowest layers feel more appreciated than they feel now. The authors conclude that the removal of economic barriers for higher self-esteem like low wages, weak social security and low public spending for education will allow human potential to flourish.

There is a growing number of well-argued books written about the societal damage caused by inequality. Alongside “The Spirit Level” we also find “Affluenza” by Psychologist Oliver James, “Status Anxiety” by philosopher Alain De Botton, and “Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality” by sociologist Richard Sennet. Everybody who thinks that society is the result of what we do or could do, and not just the sum of who we are, should read these books. The Spirit Level is a good start, not only is it a rich collection of empirical evidence, the conclusion is simple: we simply perform better as a society when we are more equal.

I found this book truly inspiring, because it places problems people from all walks of life face as a central research question without clouding it in an abundance of theoretical concepts or difficult language which would make the text far less accessible for the general public. That is one its main strengths, and a lesson we should take to heart as academics all too often writing mostly if not exclusively for the in-crowd. The authors are also not afraid to take a clear moral position: inequality is not just bad, it is actually damaging us all. They propose a number of changes and link it to the sphere of political economy, greatly enhancing political and ideological debate on the topic but backed by substantial data.

Should academics remain mostly aloof from what is happening in society around them and concentrate on writing for academia or should they take a more active role in society, writing for larger sections of the public and offering their services and knowledge to civil society? Should academics take clear positions in an engaged way, or should they commit themselves to absolute scientific neutrality to analyse a problem? Should academics be in the forefront of finding and proposing solutions to problems plaguing our society, thereby giving their research a real purpose and at the same time strengthening the debate around these issues, or should they concentrate on academic debate which some say is their core business?

I would like to conclude with a paraphrasing of Immanuel Kant’s famous quote: research without engagement lacks soul, engagement without research lacks spine.



[1] http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD

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# olena.fedyuk@strath.ac.uk
03 September 2014 12:53
This seems like the book is a great read even for a cloudy day! It does rise hopes and, if indeed provides ample empirical evidence, then it has been long awaited by many. After all, the reason why we fight for more equality is because we believe that it IS better for EVERYONE!

Your question about the role of the academics makes me think in a slightly different direction; besides the element of "greed" which we can say is a certain part of "human nature" (?) , what are the forces that drive people and societies towards more and more inequalities, against their own good? As academics and researchers, I think we need to work on untangling those power hierarchies that play out other people's lives in the polarization of incomes and inequalities, as well as the huge ideological machine that convinces millions to take part in this game. Finally, if I want to be provocative, I could ask "could the rich societies, referred to in the book, become so rich in the first place, without relying on the global disparities of income, price of labour, access to basic rights, etc?"
# monameurer@gmail.com
13 September 2014 12:59
Mona, ESR2, Oviedo University:
Thank you for this insightful little book review. As for Olena´s comment on the driving forces behind inequality,there are of course many issues to be taken into account, but let me just put forward the following hypothesis:

Worker participation in corporate decision-making prevents or lowers inequality in society. Therefore effective social dialogue with real influence for employee representatives is one key element of a more just European society.

The idea behind is: the more functional or effective the democracy, the less inequality. Functional in this case meaning participative. Power is increasingly concentrated in the boards of directors of transnational corporations. These corporations shape the life of workers and consumers in the EU. To bring these corporations back under democratic control without "overdoing" it and (try) nationalizing them is one of the great challenges of our time.

Therefore I am doing my Phd on industrial democracy in the European Union! I want to find out more on the role of European works councils and other bodies of worker participation in the construction of European industrial democracy. Research for a more equal and fair European society :0).

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