Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

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).

Tagged with: ,
Posted in blog archive, Uncategorized
16 comments on “Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
  1. David Weber says:

    Re: Intellectual property, writers and artists do all to often get forgotten, but you’ll find that a “public library system” won’t just solve everything. Artists (rightfully) have a right to determine how they distribute their work, and even with the most open-minded public library system won’t satisfy all.

    Possibly by drawing back the length of time before something goes public domain, and making it a fixed period of time, rather than dependent on the death of the creator, might be a way to preventing the widespread abuse of such rights by corporations. It all depends on how long you think someone deserves to profit from royalties on their work — no matter how you arrange it it’s bound to put someone’s nose out of joint.

    Possibly instead you could have a royalties cap system, where after an artist earns a certain amount of royalties the work passes into PD. That would appeal to me, as a musician probably fated never to become rich and successful, but it might be attacked as socialist by those seeking to make big money in the music industry. Meh.

  2. Joe Otten says:

    Does lower inequality cause a reduction in social problems? Or do lower levels of social problems – less impression of an idle, violent drug-abusing underclass – cause greater public support and tolerance for measures tackling inequality?

    Or – and this seems to me most likely – does a stronger community spirit or something like it result in both less inequality and fewer social problems?

    Research-based demands for equality seem to be a troubling attempt to replace values with logic.

  3. James Graham says:

    David – I think very few people would do away with a copyright system altogether (there are some, I will admit). The right to stop someone from using your work for a purpose you might not approve of is a tricky one; when copyright law was established I don’t think it was an issue they considered – and there certainly isn’t an economic argument for it. On the other hand I can entirely sympathise with someone who might object to their work being used by the BNP or for torture purposes by the US military.

    Joe – the issue of causation is covered more than adequately by Wilkinson and Pickett. As for your concerns, I don’t share them. They put forward a hypothesis and supply evidence for it. Either their hypothesis is wrong or it isn’t. The fact that it meets with people’s values is neither here nor there. Are we meant to ignore the fact that equality reduces social problems because considering it is ‘problematic’?

  4. David Weber says:

    I don’t have an awful amount of sympathy for rules against people “using your work for a purpose you might not approve of” — that’s the sort of demented logic that has led to examples like Rogers and Hammerstein threatening to sue a church for using the tune of Eidelweiss to different words. If someone is using it for a truly awful purpose, like torture, action needs to be taken against the person for the purpose, not the material they are using. No, I think the rational behind Intellectual Property which is reasonable is that of a) determining a stake the creator of a work has in its profitable use by another, and b) determining their right to control distribution to an extent to ensure they gain from their work.

    The latter seems to me to be far more troublesome than the former, where you can make a quite simple decision as to where a work enters public domain. I would never have a problem with, for example, a friend distributing a recording of a composition mine to another friend or two to show them something they like — partly because that’d quite possibly be beneficial to me. I would have a problem with someone deciding to mass distribute my work without rewarding me in some way. It’s not at all clear-cut, unfortunately — and very difficult to enforce what laws there are.

    I’d perhaps be interested in a system where the length of time before a work enters public domain is 25 + however many years it takes for the work to rake in a certain amount of money, with a limit of 75 years, or something along those lines. This would allow people a lot of time to wait for their work to gain attention if necessary, but restrict the length of time to which private business can use copyright law to rake in large sums of money and restrict distribution.

  5. Terence says:

    More info on this book can be found at:

  6. David Heigham says:

    This is great. There is more and better evidence in this book than I have ever seen. (and it is not law of intellectual property).

    Nevertheless, we for whom reducing inequality is important need to remember four things:

    * Worthwhile reductions in inequality will take time. It is solid, lasting change that we want; not Tony Blair gestures which dribble away to nothing.
    * Economic inequality is not the whole of inequality. A lot of the troubles this book highlights may trace back to people seeing themselves as low status or high status. And education received complicates things. If you allow for the favourable effects of receiving more edcation on most of these indicators (and at least in the USA the data is good enough to make thst allowance) it seems likely that income inequality correlates a good deal more highly with undesirable outcomes than these tables and graphs suggest.
    * Income inequality is a pretty rough proxy for wealth inequality. Wealth inequality seems to have more influence on outcomes, but is harder to measure.
    * When a society starts on rapid economic growth out of poverty (India and China today) economic inequality can be expected to rise quite sharply. But does this really matter when in the medium to long term inequality is likely to fall again as most people cease to be very poor?

  7. David Cox says:

    Everybody seems to be seeing their policies reflected in the Richard Wilkinson’s work. It chimes with Pope Leo XIII’s teaching and the Liberal Democrat constitution. Rupert Read is using his work to prove John Rawls was wrong, he’s already found him guilty – is this guy really a reader at UEA ?
    Interesting to note that the most equal societies listed aren’t just more ethnically and culturally homogenous; but constitutional monarchies with compulsory military service – so that bloke down the pub who say bring back national service may have a point.

  8. James Graham says:


    Could you point me to this Rupert Read article you are referring to?

    As for Wilkinson being all things to all people, I disagree. There are plenty of people I’ve come across who are profoundly opposed to equality, either in principle or in practice, and are appalled by this book. The book itself doesn’t especially concentrate on policy solutions.

    What IS true is that it is a useful book for anyone who DOES believe in equality. I would accept that there is a risk therefore that it merely confirms people’s prejudices, but isn’t that true of all social research?

  9. David Cox says:

    On his blog:

    And a comment on:
    Irony here that this is the blog of the Green Party’s Hackney PPC and Hackney Lib Dems had Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett as guests at their garden party. Hackney was also the last stand of the Green Shirts -Social Credit Party in 1951.

  10. James Graham says:

    I have to admit I was getting Richard Read and Rupert Read mixed up (I do that a lot). Thanks!

  11. James Graham says:

    I can’t see how Rupert Read can possibly be right incidently. He seems to have redefined the Difference Principle. What Wilkinson and Puckett appear to have established is that large income inequality DOESN’T benefit the worst off in society – Rawls would thus argue that it isn’t justifiable. Read would have us believe that Rawls would ignore the evidence and declare inequality to be good. That sounds rather more like an INdifference principle.

    What Wilkinson and Puckett haven’t demonstrated – and I don’t think would be able to – is that absolute equality of income would be the ideal in terms of social and health outcomes (which is what I assume Read would like it to demonstrate given his politics). Indeed, as I said in my review, the implication in the book is that at low levels of GDP, growth may well be a bigger factor than equality; there is a dynamic here which isn’t clearly understood.

    Perhaps there are better philosophers than I out there who could offer greater illumination.

  12. David Cox says:

    I believe this gigantic exercise in intellectual masturbation will be based on Cohen’s critique of Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ in Rescuing Justice and Equality. Of course whilst Cohen disagrees with Rawls on this point, he gives extreme praise to Rawls and a Theory of Justice. Read seems to be want to attack Rawls because be is a Liberal.

    Anyway as Marx say ‘what makes a wage slave? –Wages’ Groucho Marx that is.

  13. David Cox says:

    James, Good reasoned defence of Rawls, can I borrow it?

  14. James Graham says:

    I’m flattered – but I’m a mere layman and you might want to run it by someone more knowledgeable than me first.

  15. Tom Papworth says:

    ” 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?…

    …if there is a relationship between inequality and diversity we need to understand it and be able to respond.”

    I suspect that there is some truth that diversity leads to inequality, but not, perhaps, for the reasons that many anti-migrationists would have us understand.

    To the extent that governments can create more equal societies than would emerge in a free economy, they have to do so with the consent of the governed (unless we are talking about Totalitarian Egalitarianism, and I’m happy to park the Communists for now). It is therefore worth noting the evidence that small, ethnically homogenous, culturally close communities are more willing to bear redistributive policies than are large, diverse and diffuse ones. Just as families are more willing to support their down-on-their-luck bretheren than neighbours, so the people of Iceland are more willing to support the family up the road than are the people of Ipswich.

    Japan is a good example here. Though large, it has not had the same level of immigration that European countries have seen and family networks remain stronger.

    Apropos James, I should add that I don’t see this as a reason to close borders. Immigration might reduce a society’s willingness to bear governmental efforts to equalise outcomes, but it also increases a society’s ability to grow and develop. I agree with Wilkinson and Pickett that “growth is a bigger factor for [improving overall outcomes in] developing countries” but would suggest that it is true of developed countries as well. The latest MRI scanners will not become widely available by making the UK more equal; they will become more available by making the UK richer.

  16. Rupert Read says:

    Briefly: Wilkinson agrees with me (personal communication) that his work undermines Rawls. James G. is only correct that Wilkinson and Pickett don’t undermine Rawls if the Difference Principle turns out to be equivalent to egalitarianism. Seeing as the whole raison d’etre of Rawlsian liberalism is, I would argue, the justification of inequality, Rawls(ians) is (are) hardly likely to agree to this.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett"
  1. [...] subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Follow us on Twitter

Blog archive