The Spirit Level

Image courtesy of Amazon
Image courtesy of Amazon

The latest book I finished reading is The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. This book is a comprehensive study about inequality and the impacts to societies as a whole. I had the idea of reading this book because I read The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth. When the author discuss about Gini-measured equality, he mentioned this book. Talking about Gini, Gini coefficient, seems to bring back all the good memories from learning economics few years ago. So, I decided to read The Spirit Level soon after I finish the Scandinavian utopia.

The Spirit Level was written based on extensive studies done in many developed countries. After considering some limitations on data, Wilkinson and Pickett chose 23 countries and 50 American states to be used for comparisons. This book really tries to give readers a total comprehension about what inequality can do to a whole society, not specifically only to the poor. Honestly I was surprised by what inequality can do to decrease the quality of life. The authors show readers that inequality can do harm by affecting the community life and social relations, mental health and drug use, physical health and life expectancy, obesity, educational performance, teenage births, violence, imprisonment and punishment, and social mobility. I am not going to put every result of the research here but I summarise my few favourite points that I remember.

There was an interesting story behind equality. Alexis de Tocqueville travelled throughout the United States in 1831, met many people from various backgrounds and saw the society as ‘one single mass’ (at least for whites). From his experience, he believed that equality had helped to developed and maintain trust among Americans. The slavery happened because African-Americans were viewed as ‘other’ so the empathy didn’t occur. He concluded that empathy was only felt for those we view as equals, ‘the same feeling for one another didn’t not exist between the different classes.’

Not only equality affects empathy, it also affects trust. It makes sense. With greater inequality, people care less about another and competition increases because all they care is to fending themselves to get what they want in order to be seen materially valuable in the eyes of others. It is not a good news because a number of convincing studies in the USA have linked trust to health. People with low-level of trust live shorter and vice versa.

Inequality affects everyone in the society, even the younger generation. Social inequality in early childhood development entrenched long before the start of formal education. Researches show that more unequal countries and states have worse educational attainment. Children living in low-income families are also more likely to experience and witness more family conflict, disruption, and violence. As an adult, they are prone to involved in crimes and teenage births.

What I like the most is the idea of Wilkinson and Pickett that the quality of social relations in a society is built on material foundations. In a materialistic society, people tend to value money more and social relations less. But unfortunately, the evidence shows that happiness has not increased in spite of double fold on real income.

If my writing about The Spirit Level drag your curiosity out about the severe impact of inequality to the society, I recommend you to read the whole book. It is a worth-to-read book that can expand your horizon and probably give you new idea to contribute in creating more equal society.


One thought on “The Spirit Level”

  1. I did not expect unequality to have this deep impact on so many aspects of human life, at the same time. In my view, this is a topic of growing concern, in particular in western societies. The welfare state is in decline there for decades and inequality in general rose significantly in recent years. (France being one of few exceptions)

    One aspect which I would like to add to the case of inequality is democracy. If inequality were to grow indefinitely people would some day find themselves living in a non-democratic state. In such a worst-case scenario, the democratic principle of equal citizenship would merely work as an illusion on paper. The rich people’s political and social power, deriving from their wealth, could not be matched by the have-nots in practice. (This is where Karl Marx’s theory of class struggle sets in. However, he also factors in an increase of the global concentration of capital among the bourgeoisie…)
    Sooner or later a small elite of owners of capital would rule the have-nots and make all decisions for them. This really reminds me of the situation in premodern societies… Do we really want to risk going back to a political system virtually based on manor?

    In my view we should consider how the industrialised world successfully reduced inequality during the 19th and early 20th century. There was the introduction of a progressive tax system then, and many other measures which ensured that inequality shrank considerably by the mid of the 20th century.
    Iam convinced such a decrease in inequality can be achieved once more in our days.


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