Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review of 'The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone' by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009, Bloomsbury Press)

In The Spirit Level epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that more equal societies are better off than less equal societies, with reference to a battery of evidence. Compiling data taken from a range of sources, including the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the United Nations, they document the relationship across countries between equality and social outcomes, highlighting the correlation between inequality and a range of social ills, including violent crime, obesity, and mental health illness. Recognising that such relationships could be spurious, the authors examined comparable data for the fifty states of the US to test whether inequality was related to various social problems across the two settings. This yielded the same findings, namely that the lives of individuals in less equal societies are unhappier and unhealthier. They note that while the increased prevalence of poor health and violence in more unequal societies is established, their research demonstrates that ‘almost all problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies’ (p. 28).

Wilkinson and Pickett’s study demonstrates that the negative impacts of inequality are not limited to the poor, but instead are borne by all of society, meaning that richer societies do not necessarily do better than poorer societies: ‘the prevalence of poor health and social problems in whole societies really is related to inequality rather than average living standards’ (p. 29). On the key issue of causality, the authors emphasise ‘the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance’ (p. 150). Pointing to their study and numerous others they argue, ‘It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is, in an essential respect, the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force’ (p. 155). 

This is powerful and persuasive reading. Wilkinson and Pickett's study challenges proponents of ‘trickle down economics’, demonstrating that the benefits of economic policies privileging a few will not improve the lot of a society. The Spirit Level also speaks in support of ‘post growth’ and ‘degrowth’ movements, asserting that yes, we are rich enough and that more growth is not the solution, but rather, more equally distributing wealth. Conspicuously absent from the text is explicit reference to capitalism (with the exception of publication titles the term appears only once, in a quote by Murray Bookchin). A more explicit interrogation of the structural context in which inequality and its related social ills are generated (rather than the authors' traverses into psychology in explaining why inequality creates dysfunctional societies) would drive home the argument, however this remains an important and cogent study.


  1. The interesting analysis of W&P's research in "The Spirit Level Delusion" (Christopher Snowdon) is worth consideration.

  2. There have been quite a few replies to Snowdon's analysis. I link to the authors' here: