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The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
by Richard Wilkinson , Kate Pickett
Search Amazon for other books by or about Richard Wilkinson.

Reviewed by: John Walsh

When Tony Blair led the Labour Party to the first of three electoral successes in 1997, he and his policy advisors famously or infamously declared that they were 'intensely relaxed' about the fact that some people were super-rich and likely to get richer. Their concern was primarily with the poor and middle class people who had voted for them in overwhelming numbers. They, through Chancellor Gordon Brown, planned to use the benefits of the City of London (i.e. the finance sector) to pay for improvements in the life opportunities and income of the poorer people. As part of the Labour tradition (albeit seemingly semi-detached from it at times), they knew full well that people were not poor from choice but from a combination of circumstances that prevented them from reaching their potential and even from getting decent work and life chances. Through carefully planned and funded policy programmes, providing help in such areas as after-hours school support for children of working parents, advice and help in the critical early years and so forth, people would be able to improve their lives and the country as a whole would prosper. These policies were incredibly successful and millions benefited (they are being ended now by the right-wing coalition led by the Conservative party). However, as the Labour administration continued, politicians were puzzled that people did not seem to be becoming happier than they were. Surely, with better opportunities, more income, more consumer goods, whatever it is that they wanted were closer to their grasp, this must make people happier. Yet it did not work out thus and on housing estates and tenement buildings across the country, not to mention in the areas of crushing small-town and suburban boredom, unhappiness and its close cousin anti-social behaviour flourished. Why should this be?

The answers are provided in a carefully thought-out and researched work of social science by leading epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Through an extensive series of cross-country statistical analyses, properly conducted and described, they show that wealth in itself provides only a limited amount of improvement in peoples' lives - clearly, people in developed countries have better health and opportunities than most people in less-developed countries but there is a limit to that improvement. Additional wealth at the aggregate level does not improve social goods to a very high amount. Indeed, countries with lower levels of wealth do much better with regard to indicators such as health, trust, happiness, social mobility, violence, obesity, teenage pregnancies and so forth. The results of the statistical analysis clearly and consistently show that there is a close positive correlation between good social indicators and relative equality in terms of wealth. Conversely, in countries where there are higher levels of inequality, there are higher levels of negative social outcomes: lower life expectancy; more teenage pregnancies; more violence; lower levels of trust and so forth. This holds true both for cross-country analyses and also for cross-state data from the USA (accurate data from other countries limits the size of the datasets). It is the states in the USA where inequality is highest that have the worse social conditions. The results are consistent and overwhelming (readers unfamiliar with statistics might like to note that correlations do not mean that there is no case of, for example, high inequality and good outcomes or low inequality and bad outcomes, it is just that they are much less likely than the opposite. Much less likely in this case, that is, than it is reasonable to make an objection on statistical grounds.)

In general, of course, correlation does not equal causality but there is such a consistent and relentless set of results that the authors feel justified in concluding that the results are linked. Indeed, given their role as epidemiologists, they would be remiss in not doing so - it would be like not drawing the conclusion that cigarette smoking and ill health were related. Consequently, they draw some policy conclusions from the results that they have carefully drawn. In doing so, they also consider alternative explanations: might it be, for example, that the people suffering from negative effects are to blame in some way, perhaps those who are at the top of the pile have some special talents, perhaps they work harder and are smarter than the rest? There is no evidence to suggest this; indeed, quite the opposite. It is inequality that matters. More unequal societies have more violence, less trust, more obesity, lower levels of health and life expectancy than their level of wealth would suggest, poorer educational outcomes and so forth. The most unequal societies in the dataset are the USA, UK and Portugal. The most equal (or least unequal) societies are Japan and the Scandinavian countries.

This is a splendid document of considerable use to anyone interested in trying to make better social outcomes - it might also be of use to people wondering which way to vote in any forthcoming elections that might happen to be around. It is not necessary to agree with every conclusion or social policy suggestion to be convinced by the sheer weight of evidence. I understand there have been some data-deniers - but then, some people deny global climate change and the Big Bang theory. Science says otherwise.

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