The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett

331 pages, Bloomsbury Press, 2009

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Why is inequality so bad? It’s not just that the poorest people in highly unequal societies may go without food, shelter, or other basic subsistence goods. It’s not just that extreme inequality makes it difficult for the less fortunate to participate fully in their country’s social institutions. It’s not just that lavishing mansions, cars, and jewels on a few lucky people violates some primitive sense of justice and what’s fair. Although inequality may well be problematic for these conventional reasons, The Spirit Level tells us that it’s mainly bad because it makes status differences more extreme and salient and thus generates insecurity about our worth and where we stand in the social hierarchy. We should dislike inequality, in other words, because it produces anxiety and because such anxiety in turn leads to chronic stress, health problems, and other undesirable outcomes.

The great achievement of The Spirit Level is documenting that this inequality-induced anxiety has so many bad effects. It makes humans feel stressed and deprived and more likely to get depressed, smoke, overeat, or engage in violent behavior. It also leads to conspicuous displays of consumption, such as buying fancy cars, big houses, and luxury clothes, all of which serve no obvious social function save that of reassurance about one’s place in the hierarchy.

The Spirit Level is, for the most part, a straightforward empirical tract documenting this two-way relationship between how unequal a country is and the frequency of “bad” outcomes within that country (such as overeating, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse). The data reveal that the relatively equal Nordic societies and Japan have low rates of the bad stuff and the highly unequal societies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have comparatively high rates.

In pushing their argument, Wilkinson and Pickett make do with simple graphs of the bivariate association between inequality and bad outcomes, and they’re not therefore testing their preferred story about how this relationship is generated. Although they argue vigorously that bad outcomes are generated because inequality makes us anxious and stressed, there is rather little in The Spirit Level that would dissuade one from the alternative view that high-inequality societies fare poorly because (a) they tend to have lots of poor and disadvantaged people, and (b) poor and disadvantaged people tend to be sick, depressed, or otherwise unhealthy because they live in polluted and dangerous areas, don’t exercise or eat well, are excluded from full participation in their society, lack access to high-quality health care, and so forth. If this alternative account is on the mark, it implies that anxiety isn’t the exclusive culprit and that headway can additionally be made by simply improving the substandard material conditions to which less fortunate people are routinely exposed. The case against inequality doesn’t necessarily have to be predicated on the anxiety it generates.

Is the latter (exceedingly mild) criticism unfair? It has to be conceded, after all, that The Spirit Level is as much a call to arms as a straightforward presentation of scientific evidence, and it’s reasonable to look beyond narrowly drawn scientific questions and ask instead whether it will succeed in mobilizing anti-inequality sentiment. It’s relevant in this regard that The Spirit Level resonates well with the emerging anti-inequality zeitgeist. There is growing concern that extreme income inequality, far from increasing a country’s economic output, may in fact reduce total output. It’s also relevant that an idiosyncratic constellation of highly publicized news events in the last five years has both exposed troubling inequalities (such as Hurricane Katrina) and legitimated the presumption that we should care about them (the election of Barack Obama). This all suggests that the underlying conditions for a successful call to arms are in place.

Even so, one can’t overstate how hard it will likely be to sell the Wilkinson-Pickett premise, at least in the United States, where the opportunity to amass great wealth is understood as a fundamental form of liberty. It is arguably naive for the authors to conclude, “Now that we have shown that reducing inequality leads to a very much better society, the main sticking point is whether people believe greater equality is attainable.” The main sticking point, I suspect, will instead be convincing powerful people and corporations to experiment with a new egalitarian society that wouldn’t seem to serve them well.

Although Wilkinson and Pickett argue that even the rich and privileged will profit from a more equal society (by enjoying better health, less alienation, and so forth), in fact the calculus is a rather complicated one, because the privileged will not just be giving up massive economic benefits, but also will be giving up the softer privileges that accrue to them by virtue of occupying a privileged place in the social hierarchy. It follows that The Spirit Level may not appeal to those at the top. At least in the United States, one can arguably make more headway by railing against poverty, especially the poverty experienced by (blameless) children.

To be sure, that I’m even asking whether The Spirit Level fills the bill as the standard bearer in a new War on Inequality is testimony enough to the importance of this book. We are in the midst of a historic moment in which many forces have come together and suddenly raised the prominence of debates about poverty and inequality. This type of moment comes along only rarely, and it’s important that it’s properly exploited with a pitch-perfect delivery, one that’s consistent with our most fundamental values and thus resonates. If The Spirit Level isn’t quite pitch-perfect, it may nonetheless be the closest we get.

David B. Grusky is professor of sociology and director of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. He is the coauthor or editor of many books as well as coeditor of the center’s new magazine Pathways.

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