Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Spirit Level

I am currently reading a book which, I believe, contains important truths about politics and society and which presents the evidence to support those truths. It is called "The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better", by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The book has a simple, but politically explosive, theme: that greater inequality is the cause of many modern problems and, by logicical implication, that greater equality can be the solution to many of the problems of western societies.

Each perceived problem (the growth of crime, violence, education failure, generational unemployment..etc), is charted against measures of economic inequality in western countries. A remarkable co-relation is shown in almost every case: the more unequal societies have more crime, violence, social problems, and the more equal societes display fewer of these ills.

It seems a simple enough truth, and it certainly chimes with the more "socialist" instincts of those on what used to be called the left of politics that (in broad terms),  "poverty causes crime". But the authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have gathered such a wealth of information and marshalled it so well, that the argument becomes almost irrefutable.

Which is not to say that some right wing commentators have not tried to rubbish the findings. You can understand why: for the last thirty years public policy has been based on letting wealth rip and the hope that some of it would trickle down to the poor. And to an extent that has happened. But the result has been a more fragmented and "unhappier" society. If the nostrums implied in The Spirit Level were to be adopted by our politicians the resultant policies would be a thousand miles from base Thatcherism or even the New Labour project. And the right doesn't like that idea.

The Spirit Level shows why this may be the case and, more importantly, it points to political solutions which must target the growing inequality, and reduce it, because by doing so, we will reduce the problems that ail us.

My advice: if you are intetrested in politics and improving sociey, this book is a must-read. Buy it. Now!


  1. I'm afraid the critics might have a point. Radio 4 didn't paint The Spirit Level in the best of lights last week. Worth a listen before you commit yourself.

  2. Anon
    Listened to the broadcast.

    It seemed to me that the interviewer was adopting "paxman" approach, i.e. don't ask a question, make a statement, and make it with such confidence that any rebuttal seems like an excuse, dismiss the complications and go for the simplifications, use a skeptical tone of voice.

    He also parroted some of the accusations made by right wing commentators such as Peter Saunders, and Pickett gave her reasonable reponses.

    A fuller addressing of the various right wing attempts (including Saunders')to undermine the book can be found here.

    It seems to me that opponents of the book have adopted the same approach that creationists and evolution deniers and climate change deniers have used: i.e. create a controversy over a small point in a large idea.... "you've put a comma in the wrong place in page 268, eh what?".

    Merely replying that all the other commas are well placed and anyway, you think the comma on page 268 is perfectly valid... makes you look defensive.

    The Spirit Level is a large book with a lot of data and ideas. Some of these are bound to be more strongly described than other. Worrying away at a perceived "weak point" doesn't destroy the thesis, but it allows nit picking oppositionists to claim that the thing is not perfect, therefore it's all bad...

    Having created a nitpick, you publish a pamphlet saying there's a "controversy" where none really exists, then you "teach the (non existent) controversy".

    It's a classic disinformation tactic used by the Discovery Institute and other anti-science establishmnets and groups.

    Read the book. Make up your own mind.