Friday, March 8, 2013

The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make a persuasive argument that societies with greater equality do better across a broad range of health and social outcomes. 

The main premise of The Spirit Level is pretty basic and will make intuitive sense to most people. More equal societies, the authors say, do better across a whole range of health and well-being factors than more unequal societies. Evidence marshalled from a range of official reports and studies seems to demonstrate that if you live in a more unequal society, you’re more likely to die early, suffer poor physical and mental health, be a victim of violence, develop a drug addiction and end up obese. That’s just health factors. Overall, the more unequal the society you live in, the less trust and social cohesion there is. Everyone becomes jealous of each other and starts coveting their neighbour’s goods.

That’s the basic argument. Is it convincing? Pretty much, but not entirely. Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis has many small caveats and fails to conclusively prove its theory. They claim that their data makes a strong correlation between unequal societies and poor social and health outcomes, but can’t definitively prove this causality. This is perhaps the biggest criticism that can be levelled at the book. It’s a very persuasive and intriguing book, but doesn’t really nail its argument one hundred per cent.

The good news is The Spirit Level does provide a lot of fascinating food for thought. The picture it paints is one of societies shooting themselves in the foot by staying on a course that promotes ever widening inequality. The data Wilkinson and Pickett provides often does demonstrate stunning correlations between poor health and social outcomes for societies with poor equality, when compared with countries with greater equality.

The most absorbing parts of the book discuss how societies might reap a twin benefit by reducing inequality and shrinking their economies. This would result in more leisure time and less pointless consumer stuff purchased, mostly as status symbols. Reducing spending and economic activity would also help in reducing carbon emissions. In the end, making societies more equal will make us happier and healthier. It seems a no-brainer. What are we waiting for then?

I’d say that it’s fear holding us back. In a competitive society, everyone is afraid of the next person getting ahead of them. Also, it seems impossible for politicians to think of another way to run society. We’re all stuck in a consumerist rut.

The Spirit Level is a book whose ideas will keep you thinking for days after you have finished the last page. Here is a passage I found particularly striking, which I quote at length:

"There are reasons to think that employee-owned companies might maintain higher standards of morality even with the profit motive. In conventional employment people are specifically hired to work for purposes which are not their own. They are paid to use their expertise to whatever purpose their employer chooses. You might disagree with the purpose to which your work is being put, you might not even know what the purpose is, but you are not employed to have opinions about such things and certainly not to express them. Such issues are not your concern. If you are hired to advise on how your company can expand in markets, improve profits, avoid press attention, the chances are that you are not being asked for an ethical opinion. You are hired to put your expertise to work to serve someone else’s purpose. Not only are the purposes not your responsibility, but as an employee you are likely to feel absolved from responsibility for them. This is why people have so often disclaimed responsibility for what they were doing by saying that they were ‘only carrying out orders.’ The famous Milgram experiments showed that we have such a strong tendency to obey authority that it can result in us doing some pretty awful things. In what was presented as a ‘learning’ experiment, Milgram showed that people were willing to deliver what they believed were not only very painful, but also life-threatening electric shocks to a learning partner whenever the partner gave the wrong answer to a question. They did this at the request of a man in a white coat conducting the experiment, despite hearing what they thought were the screams causes by the shocks they delivered."

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241954294 RRP: $26.95