One of the most influential books of 2009 was The Spirit Level by Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two epidemiologists. I was really struck by how often the book was quoted in the media, on platforms and in everyday conversations.
It was Richard Wilkinson’s book The Impact of Inequality – which came out a year or so before The Spirit Level – which originally prompted me to write my book, The Tears that Made the Clyde. However, although I was taken by aspects of the argument I also thought Wilkinson’s work flawed because he completely ignores the impact of culture, beliefs and values. Thus, for example, Wilkinson’s work hardly looks at the impact of materialist values or advertising. Everything is tied to status differentials linked to income inequality. If you look at the type of solutions he proposes at the end of both books – for example, workers’ cooperatives – what you see is the culmination of a very economic determinist analysis. Indeed on page 201 of the book (figure 6.2) he sets out “How greater inequality leads to poorer social relations”. Here I’ve summarised the points as follows:
Greater income inequality > More them and us >More dominance and subordination etc >Increased status competition and emphasis on self-interest> Others as rivals/poorer social relations.
What Wilkinson doesn’t look at is where the drive for greater income inequality (the energy for the whole system comes from). What leads to this is economic growth coming from production and people putting in hours of labour. This motivation in part comes from a society’s values and beliefs about what’s important. Increasingly the motivation for this comes from the media with its relentless advertising and ratching up of expectations and preying on people’s insecurity. Societies like Japan don’t have pronounced income inequality because they have different values from Anglo-American societies. Wilkinson hardly ever looks at these kind of factors.
Right from publication The Spirit Level had its detractors, but eighteen months or so after publication the book is now coming in for some serious criticism. One of the main lines of attack is that all the authors present is correlational data on income inequality and various poor social and health outcomes yet the whole drift of their argument is that pronounced income differentials causes these problems. Others question the validity of their data and use of statistics. One of the problems seems to be that The Spirit Level is intended for a general audience and so they have simplified the empirical data. Undoubtedly if they had presented their argument and evidence in more academic, and robust, ways no-one would have heard of the book let alone spend time discussing it.
If you have an hour or so to spare, and are interested, it is worth listening to a debate convened at the RSA recently where two major critics of The Spirit Level set out their arguments and then Wilkinson and Pickett reply. While I agreed with parts of what one had to say about the importance of culture and history I thought that Wilkinson (and particularly) Pickett did a good job in defending their book. And I’m glad to see that a leader in today’s Guardian defends the book against its detractors. It writes:
The combined forces suddenly being ranged against the book are now … of a very different nature. The titles of the anti-egalitarian studies – which refer variously to The Spirit Level’s “delusion”, “illusion” and its “false prophesy” – reveal the polemical intent, a telling contrast with the book’s meticulous subtitle: “Why more equal societies almost always do better.” The most thoroughgoing of the attacks is launched by the Policy Exchange, which lands most of its punchs by rejecting “outliers” those countries – such as equal Sweden and unequal America – which most forcefully make the egalitarian point. It pays no heed to the wider literature, going back decades, that has linked ill health with poverty. As a result it fails to grapple with The Spirit Level’s underlying argument about the way that pyramid societies rot from the bottom up.
One of the things that the Guardian did not point out but which I feel is self-evident is that one of the reasons why The Spirit Level is so read and quoted by people is that it rings true. In the UK at least most people know in their bones that the country has become much more divided and unequal and they fear the consequences. This can even be seen in the recent European Social Survey data which show that the UK has the lowest trust figures in Europe. Indeed it is partly the erosion of trust in unequal societies that leads to negative consequences, even for those at the top of the hierarchy.
Carol Craig is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and the author of three books including. She is the driving force of the Centre, constantly seeking new and innovative ideas to ensure that it maintains its leading role in the field of confidence and well-being. She blogs on www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/carolsblog.php