Book Review – The Spirit Level

TSL Inequality is bad for us, individually and socially. So say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (with extensive website).

Do you love scatterplots? I hope so because the book is chock full of them, establishing correlations between high levels social inequalities and high levels of a variety of social problems, from physical or mental health, to violence and incarceration, to teenage pregnancies.

Indeed, this book is data-driven, slowly but surely and progressively building a case for egalitarian societies as simply more successful and more humane than their more unequal counterparts. The amount of data should (ideally) help progressives make the case for egalitarianism is not a bleeding heart’s wet dream but rather the only rational course of action in terms of public policy. Again, the data Wilkinson and Pickett marshal show very clearly that more equal societies really do better, are better for individuals and societies, and are better for everybody (not just the disadvantaged). This would leave very little room for anyone to argue FOR stratification (be they conservatives, libertarians, or social Darwinists).

The website lays out the starting point of the book and what triggered the research: when it comes to rich societies, more economic growth no longer yields benefits in terms of health and other well-being indicators:

The data show that there is a point at which increased economic growth no longer brings objective (such as longer life expectancy) or subjective (such as happiness) benefits.So, the others got data that compared rich countries by correlating their levels of inequalities with a variety of social problems variables:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental illness and addictions
  • Life expectancy and infant mortality
  • Obesity
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Teenage births
  • Homicides
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

For all of these variables, the data show that these issues are not only more concentrated in the lower classes within societies but also more widespread in more unequal societies. Take health, for instance (click on the graphs for a bigger image… all the graphs are available at the Equality Trust website):


See the difference between the US and Japan? The correlation is clear.

Drug abuse:






Social mobility (not the reverse correlation: more inequality = lower social mobility


Trust and community life:


And on and on it goes. Interestingly, the authors also collected data for the 50 American states and found similar correlations. The more unequal states have higher levels of social problems than the more equal states. In other words, all these social problems have a social gradient: they become more common as one goes down the social ladder and they are more common in more unequal countries.

But this shows is that social inequalities have far and deep reaching consequences. More unequal societies generate more stress for their members not just because people experience more precarization and competition but also because  of what the authors greater social evaluative threats (threats related to the inability to keep up).

In more unequal societies, status is more significant and the display of status signals is central to the presentation of one’s self. This is a major source of stress accentuated by mass advertising.

"Higher status almost always carries connotations of being better, superior, more successful and more able. If you don’t want to feel small, incapable, looked down on or inferior, it is not quite essential to avoid low social status, but the further up the social ladder you are, the easier it becomes to feel a sense of pride, dignity and self-confidence. Social comparisons increasingly show you in a positive light – whether they are comparisons of wealth, education, job status, where you live, holidays, and any other markers of success." (40)

And when pride becomes so important, it is not surprising, according to the authors, that much interpersonal violence has to do with "repairing" humiliations and shame and saving face. Shame is the social emotion par excellence. Pride and shame are major social evaluative feedbacks and they are status boosters or destroyers.

And again, the more hierarchical a society, the more status matters and therefore the more one’s status needs to be protected from structural and symbolic violence, especially when one is not at the top of the social ladder. For the authors, violence and mass consumption through debt are products of this. The negative health effects of such constant competition for status and the stress it generates are well known. The fear of falling is less pronounced in more equal societies and status issues are less predominant.

Incidentally, the authors note as well that greater inequality is bad for the environment as keeping up involves mass consumption. Status competition leads to social distinction that is maintained through getting more stuff. Furthermore, research has shown that once basic necessities are covered, greater consumption and possession does not make people happier as mass consumption is a never-ending quest. And as the denizens of Richistan consume more extravagant luxury goods and services, they reduce everyone else’s satisfaction. As the authors state,

"This dissatisfaction [is] a cost which the rich impose on the rest of society." (222)

Veblen’s concepts of conspicuous consumption, pecuniary emulation and invidious comparisons are very relevant here. Combined, they constitute what the authors name the "Veblen Effect"…

"… To refer to the way goods are chosen for their social value rather than their usefulness. And research confirms that the tendency to look for goods which confer status and prestige is indeed stronger for things which are more visible to others." (225)

Inequality is also divisive as greater competition reduces the level of trust and community (see graph above) leading to "bowling alone" to paraphrase Robert Putnam’s idea. For the authors, this is materialized through the rise of gated communities, bigger houses that insulates from crowded neighborhoods and the massive sales of cars such as SUVs which emphasize "looking tough" and feeling "above the crowd" on the roads.

Similarly, the authors show that more unequal societies tend to be more stereotypically masculine and womens’ status tends to be lower. And finally, greater equality generates greater trust but also greater generosity as measured by levels of foreign aid to less fortunate countries as empathy is greater (remember how the conservative crowd mocked the notion of empathy regarding a US Supreme Court nominee… empathy is seen as a soft, feminine value to be contrasted to masculine toughness). And because greater inequality generates a greater lack of trust, it also generates greater social distance (again, physically in patterns of housing) but also in terms of stereotypical thinking and a greater capacity to divide the world between "us" and "them".

But people on the conservative side of the political spectrum as well as social Darwinists argue that competition is somewhat conform to human nature. We are driven to compete and pursue our self-interest. To interfere with that is to go against nature. As a counter, the authors argue that modern human beings spent most of their history in egalitarian and cooperative societies (hunting and gathering):

"So, rather than assuming that we are stuck with levels of self-interested consumerism, individualism and materialism which must defeat any attempts to develop any sustainable economic systems, we need to recognize that these are not fixed expressions of human nature. Instead, they reflect the characteristics of the societies in which we find ourselves and vary from one rich market democracy to another. At the most fundamental level what reducing inequality is about is shifting the balance from the divisive, self-interested consumerism driven by status competition, towards a more socially integrated and affiliative society." (227-8)

And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, the authors do emphasize that greater equality benefits everyone, not just the poor. More equal countries do better across the board, for all social classes. The top social classes benefit from greater equality.

So what is to be done to reduce inequality? The authors advocate steady-state economics as well as employee ownership and participation. They also mention forms of solidarity economics. They also note that there are many paths to reducing inequality: generous welfare redistribution is only one model (to put it simply, the Scandinavian model) but this can also be done with more equal pre-tax incomes (the Japanese model) or other model (Singapore or Hong Kong). And in the US, the authors show that Vermont (high tax) and New Hampshire (low tax) are both successful because they both have low inequality. It does not matter how you end up with low inequality. What matters is the level of inequality a state or nation ends up with.

And this warning should be heeded:

"However, in the figures there is also a clear warning for those who might want to place low public expenditure and taxation at the top of their priorities. If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prison and more police. You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problems. If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the need to deal with ensuing social ills may  force you to raise public expenditure to cope." (237)

Mainly, it also involves the recognition that the variety of social problems examined have inequality as their root cause (they devote an entire chapter to showing that these correlations indeed reveal causation) which is why treating all these social problems through specialized services and programs has had limited success and ignores the elephant in the room: their common cause.

Obviously, I thought the book incredibly informative. I have only one quibble: not everything can be explained by evolutionary psychology (and do we have to always go back to the gender stereotypes popularized by David Buss). For one, it is contradictory: evolutionary psychology explanations are supposed to be universal and reveal human nature, so, how can they be applied to explain social differences?

And, of course, social theorists, ever since Durkheim, have researched the emergence, persistence and/or reduction of social inequalities. Issues of status in interaction have been deeply analyzed by Erving Goffman. Issues of social distinction and symbolic violence were one of Bourdieu’s central research topic. Countless others have explored the structural changes in the post-War era that have deepened social inequalities and their relation to social issues. It would be nice if some of this work had been mentioned. After all, who better than sociologists to explore the social determinants of health and related issues.

But as Will Kymlicka notes in his review of the book, the prescriptions are pretty radical:

Radical indeed, but one could argue that we have just witnessed the collapse of a very unequal system and that may be exactly the right time to push for the data-based agenda for equality.

16 thoughts on “Book Review – The Spirit Level

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  14. The book itself looks pretty convincing to me in that there are many supporting statistics. In general i would agree with the authors that unequal societies have more social problems that the equal ones stemming from both material and psychological reasons.

    The fact that polarized society will have higher death rate, obesity, and lack of trust is not surprising at all. When a society is polarized, it is only natural that there are more relatively poor people; much of the death rate, obesity, and distrust will come from the poor sector of the population.

    the psychological reasoning for lowered happiness (last 50 years) interested me very much in that polarized society tends to consume more products that represent class such as expensive cars and rolexes. Not only is it not efficient, it is also detrimental to all part of the population: poor people cant have it; average people will strive to have it; and the rich will keep the other from being equal to them by spending more. to me, it seems like pointless economic waste.

    however, at the end, i have to say that the book is biased in its presentation of information. the information (including all the charts) are skewed so that it only supports equality. What about some information that goes against it? any blemishes? any benefits of polarized and competing society?

    Also, the argument that giving up income for rich people will make them happier seems problematic. will the rich be really happier by creating equal society? would they want to have less material for the sake of indirect societal benefit?

    Lastly, many of the information that supports “evils” of inequality can be attributed to each countries’ culture more strongly that egalitarianism. for example, Japan will have lower obesity rate than America -no matter what- and America will have higher death rate than any other countries because anyone can have guns.

    • The cultural argument has been debunked long ago, and yet, like a zombie, it always seems to come back because it rationalizes inequalities.

      There is no information that goes against the thesis from the book. The wealthy may pay more but they benefit from societal benefits. For instance, in a highly unequal society, the wealthy have to live in gated communities, high walls, security. They commute in helicopters and bullet-proof cars because of the (realistic) fear of kidnapping for themselves and their children. A less unequal society would lower such dangers… which would probably make them happier.

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