The Spirit Level

By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

I like a book with a simple thesis. The Spirit Level has one: Social and economic equality leads to people living longer, healthier, happier lives.

Not only is the thesis simple, it’s very clearly illustrated with comics and lots of graphs. It will be a thick brick indeed who fails to take the point. As inequality (usually the x-axis) increases, so do bad things like obesity, mental illness, teenage birth rates, and imprisonment (good things, like trust, life expectancy, and social mobility, go down). There seems little to argue with. Still . . .

Is equality really better for everyone? Not quite. There is, for one thing, a law of diminishing returns when you get closer to the topmost group, and some items on the menu – like teen pregnancy and imprisonment, for example – though not exclusively the preserve of the have-nots, are a far larger cross for them to bear. And that’s not all. “The truth is,” pay attention to the qualification here, “the vast majority of the population is harmed by greater inequality.” True as that may be, we must never forget the tiny, but in the public imagination enormous, peak of the pecking order.

But if, when we talk of “the rich,” we mean millionaires, celebrities, people in the media, running large businesses or making the news, we can only guess at how they might be affected. We might feel we live in a world peopled by faces and names which keep cropping up in the media, but such people actually make up only a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of the population and they are just too small a proportion of the population to look at separately. Without data on such a small minority we can only guess whether or not they are likely to escape the increased violence, drugs, or mental illness of more unequal societies.

In all likelihood they do not escape it, but of course there’s a big difference between being an out-patient living on the street and getting your rehab at an exclusive island spa. Suffering in silk, they used to say.

This fraction of one per cent looms so large, as the material quoted suggests, because of the amplification effect of the media. But there is a point worth considering here. The lifestyles of the rich and famous are popular with the public because they represent an aspirational goal. This leads to one of the more puzzling findings in the book, that “in unequal countries children were more likely to have high aspirations.” This despite the fact that they will be less likely to realize those aspirations, as unequal countries offer less social mobility. “If inequality leads to unrealistic hopes it must also lead to disappointment.”

This, I think, is the takeaway: Most people, however they respond to polls, do not want to live in a truly just or fair society. They don’t believe in the mythical level playing-field. What they want is a playing-field that can be tilted in their favour. Yes, the master graph shows the U.S. climbing off the chart as one of the most unequal countries in the world and the one with the greatest health and social problems. And Cuba is a good model for what can be done in terms of combining acceptable living standards with a sustainable economy. But people are willing to risk their lives to escape Cuba for a chance to live in the U.S., and not the other way around.

The numbers don’t lie, and yet I think they miss the point entirely about what “really matters” to people. The following, for example, should be a series of truths we hold to be self-evident:

If, to cut carbon emissions, we need to limit economic growth severely in the rich countries, then it is important to know that this does not mean sacrificing improvements in the real quality of life – in the quality of life as measured by health, happiness, friendship and community life, which really matters. However, rather than simply having fewer of all the luxuries which substitute for and prevent us recognizing our more fundamental needs, inequality has to be reduced simultaneously. We need to create more equal societies able to meet our real social needs.

But in fact none of these fundamental, “real social needs” is anything of the sort. Nothing is stopping people from living more sharing, caring lives in genuine communities. We just don’t want to live that way. And so: Suburbia. In much the same way we could all improve our “real quality of life” and live longer, healthier lives if we gave up junk food, only ate leafy green things, and gave up booze and cigarettes. But that’s not what we want. Which brings me back to my main point: that we do not want to live in a just or fair society. Cuba may be a healthier, more sustainable, more rational society in almost every measurable way compared to the U.S. But while Cuba, or even Sweden for that matter, is a nice place to visit, the U.S. is the place people want to live. You can explain to people that giving up air travel and air conditioning doesn’t mean “sacrificing improvements in the real quality of life,” but I doubt many will be convinced.

And so the purpose of this book, to get people to look at the evidence and so transform public opinion and politics, seems to me misguided. My heart goes out to anyone making the case for human beings as essentially social animals, but the battle for ideas that has seen the triumph of a primitive anti-social Darwinism in our time is now clearly over.

Even the cover design makes the case. A single goldfish is seen leaping from its tiny, crowded fishbowl on the left, to frolic all alone in the wide open spaces of a larger fishbowl on the right. What does this represent? Is the smaller fishbowl the ghetto? Bangladesh? And who is that high-jumping goldfish on the right? Angelina Jolie? Bill Gates? Do we really want to be a part of the ugly goldfish community packed into the smaller fishbowl? Or would you rather be one of the anti-social goldfish elite, swimming around in a great big McFishbowl of your own?

Review first published online October 11, 2010.

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