I read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better whilst watching the last two seasons of The Wire and so Chris Grayling’s claims last week that parts of the UK were beginning to resemble the Baltimore portrayed in that TV series did cause me to smile wryly. Grayling’s prescription for tackling gang culture (leaving aside the completely ridiculous comparisons) amounted to little more than getting tough, cracking down on criminals and instilling more discipline in schools. By contrast, many of the points being made in The Wire – particularly the fourth season which focuses on the school system – have strong parallels with Wilkinson and Pickett’s book. In short, this sort of “get tough” approach will achieve almost nothing whilst the underlying causes remain untreated.
At the heart of The Spirit Level is a wealth of statistical data outlining how more equal societies (defined in terms of income inequality) do better in terms of physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, crime and imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage pregnancy, child welfare and social mobility (the latter is a bit of a killer incidentally, it would appear that “The American Dream” is more of a reality in many countries which Fox News would condemn as “socialist”). If that were all the book had to offer I would suggest you save your money and simply peruse the excellent Equality Trust website which Wilkinson and Pickett have helped to set up. What is more compelling, for me at least, is the explanation about why this may be the case.
Some of this has already been covered in Duncan Brack’s chapter on equality in Reinventing the State (which you can read here). In essence, the sociological evidence fits with what we understand about evolutionary psychology and biology. As a species, we are hardwired for fairness and living in a socially stratified society is not merely something we dislike but something which we find physically stressful. Wilkinson and Pickett cite numerous pieces of evidence which suggest that, for example, low caste children in India perform worse at intelligence tests when they are told they are competing with high caste children than when they don’t realise they are being compared (New Scientist recently reported some interesting parallel research looking at exam performance of Black Americans before and after Barack Obama’s election victory). Other evidence suggests that shame can be as unbearable for people as physical pain and that living in poverty tends to cause children to mature early.
Overall, it is a compelling document. I have some qualms however. I don’t think the most startling claim, that inequality harms the wealthy as well as the poor is proven. They do provide evidence for this to be fair, but not an awful lot. I’d like to see more research on this before being convinced (I’m rather more convinced by the argument that inequality harms people earning median income and even higher income groups, just not those at the top). I would also like to better understand the dynamic between growth and equality: at what point does equality become a bigger factor in improving, say, health, than economic growth? In the first section of the book Wilkinson and Pickett do acknowledge that growth is a bigger factor for developing countries but the precise relationship between the two doesn’t get explored as much as I would have liked.
I also wish the book explored how inequality and ethnic diversity are interrelated. Most of the more equal societies listed appear to also be more ethnically more homogenous. Does ethnic diversity drive inequality and to what extent is it a barrier to greater equality? These are, admittedly, problematic questions to answer but I think it is something we need to understand. It would be nice to be able to discount the notion that the same biological factors which make us well disposed to equal societies don’t also dispose us towards more homogenous societies but what if it doesn’t? Ultimately, we can’t merely trust in social science to make decisions for us – that’s where political choices come in (for the avoidence of doubt, I’m NOT arguing for segregation or anti-immigration policies here – quite the opposite – but if there is a relationship between inequality and diversity we need to understand it and be able to respond).
So where does all this get us? Wilkinson and Pickett point to a few possible solutions. They are keen to emphasise that a more equal society doesn’t necessarily mean going down the Scandinavian route of redistributive taxation and a larger state. Japan for example has neither of these. Indeed, while they certainly do not oppose public policy solutions, most of the final chapter in the book is concerned with establishing a cultural shift.
Some of the solutions they do propose sound remarkably familiar to those of us who have read our Schumacher. A starting point for them would be to revolutionise employee ownership. “Industrial democracy” is something which the Lib Dems have forgotten about over the past couple of decades – perhaps it is time we rediscovered it as a central tenet in these post credit crunch days?
I was slightly surprised to read in a book about social problems and public health a section on the open source revolution and information technology but this is another aspect that Wilkinson and Pickett feel that politicians need to embrace in order to lead us towards this much needed cultural shift. I think they’re right to do so. The debate over intellectual property laws goes to the heart of what kind of society we want to live in – one where every tune and image is owned by private corporations or one where we have a cultural commons (all too often the artists and writers themselves tend to get forgotten in this debate but the public library system proves that we have alternatives to the limitless copyright model international law is drifting towards). A shift towards the latter would strike a blow for those of us who believe equality matters.
We can’t forget public policy of course, but as Wilkinson and Pickett point out if those shifts in policy are to be lasting they have to go hand in hand with an attitudinal change. The tricky thing is that it is clear that most people have an innate sense of fairness, outside of the laboratory there is a wide difference of opinion as to what is “fair.” This makes it all the more crucial the politicians start talking about these issues. Gordon Brown has demonstrated over the past decade that redistribution by stealth merely gets you into a mess.
The Social Liberal Forum and Compass will be hosting a fringe meeting on Overcoming Political Barriers to Equality on Monday 21 September at the Lib Dem autumn conference in Bournemouth. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett will be speaking at the Hackney Liberal Democrats Garden Party on Sunday 13 September (£10 or £5 in advance).