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the-spirit-level-why-equalityMany of us believe that a fairer, more equal, society would be significantly better for the vast majority. Belief, however, can be a wholly difficult concept to convey. It seems plain that lower income inequality, longer life expectancies and greater levels of contentment are goals to be striven for. Yet power lies only partly with the majority. The minority – holders of the lion’s share of power and wealth – may believe quite the contrary; that greater equality would worsen situations for themselves, and that achieving it would be costly for all.

The Spirit Level heaps overwhelming empirical evidence upon this contentious issue. Placing fact above opinion it transcends belief in the power of equality, proving definitively that it is ‘better for everyone’. Through demonstration of economic and political realities, social trends and scientific studies, it proves that fairer societies could benefit all strata of society; not just the 99%, but the wealthy and powerful 1% too.

Little is surprising. Highly unequal societies (topped by the USA, with the UK close behind) are prone to suffer higher rates of stress, mental illness, obesity, crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and so on, with lower levels of social mobility, education, trust and life expectancy. In the opposite extreme – and on a graded scale in-between – more equal societies (notably Japan and the Scandinavian countries) reverse almost all of these trends, proving an undeniable link between equality and almost all of society’s most critical features. Few, even among the rich minority, would argue against the benefits of these numerous social positives.


Fascinatingly, such a clear correlation with all these issues is not matched when plotted against our overwhelmingly-favoured measure of ‘success’, GDP, nor even when compared to average incomes. In reality, even countries with significantly higher earnings can be trumped on all kinds of major societal issues by countries with greater equality. Certainly, GDP accounts for the gulf of difference between Zambia and Turkey, for example, but GDP’s power to improve life tapers off, resulting in a much reduced gulf between, say, Turkey and the much richer Denmark. The effects of equality don’t appear to taper off in this way. Equality should therefore become society’s next goal, once sustainable economic prosperity has been achieved.

We have, however, become thoroughly hooked on GDP. Policy treating GDP as deity has encouraged private companies to thrive, CEO salaries to skyrocket, and most others to be left behind. This is the state we’re in. Published six months after the 2008 crash, though, which highlighted for many that rising overall wealth isn’t an indefatigable route to prosperity, The Spirit Level is timely in whetting a growing appetite for change.


Whilst Wilkinson and Pickett concentrate more on evidence and theory than they do on recommendations, some are proffered. Routes to equality are many, and by no means confined to political or taxation-based solutions. Examples of vastly various causes can be found among the more equal countries, or conversely for the less equal. There are arguments to be made for all kinds of action, though perhaps none greater than the democratisation of corporate power. Shared responsibility and ownership, instigated from the inside (supported, perhaps, but not forced by, policy or taxation) could help introduce greater equality in crucial institutions throughout society. How long would a democratised company tolerate bosses earning 100 times their salary?

Answering the argument that such action would be impossible to instigate, The Spirit Level cites examples of numerous companies, non-profits and organisations who have done so already. There’s even evidence to prove that companies and societies based on this structure often do significantly better than comparable non-democratised organisations, and that with lower inequality, management suffer less stress. One study even links greater workplace equality to lower rates of heart disease; even a banker might trade in their bonus to avoid that!

The Spirit Level is difficult to argue with, making it essential reading for anyone wishing to upgrade their belief in greater equality to a certainty. It provides refreshing and invigorating possibilities for social futures which feel attainable, albeit ambitious. As the book concludes, though, in the grand scheme of history, equality has improved vastly; from the abolition of slavery, through women’s rights movements, and ever-widening healthcare provision. The Spirit Level lays the groundwork for the next step.

THE SPIRIT LEVEL: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone, 2009, Penguin:
[nb. Probably best not to buy this one from Amazon, considering the subject matter…]

The Equality Trust:
TED Talk:
Article ‘How ‘ideas wreckers’ turned book into political punchbag’ [Guradian]:


One Comment

  • Graham White says:

    Wilkinson and Pickett’s book “The Spirit Level” gets little attention these days following the UK controversy about their flawed statistical analyses back in 2009/10. Epidemiologists have now distanced themselves from W&P’s claims that there is a correlation between income inequality and a wide range of indicators of social harm. Better to focus on Danny Dorling’s publications or Picketty’s book on wealth inequality. Growing inequality is indeed of concern to most thoughtful citizens but unfortunately TSL doesn’t help the cause.

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