The Spirit Level authors: why society is more unequal than ever
Five years after The Spirit Level, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that research backs up their views on the iniquity of inequality
A lot has happened in the five years since we published our book, The Spirit Level. New Labour were still perhaps too relaxed about people becoming “filthy rich”. And there was an assumption that inequality mattered only if it increased poverty, and that for most people “real” poverty was a thing of the past.
But so much has changed. In the aftermath of the financial crash and the emergence of Occupy, there has been a resurgence of interest in inequality. Around 80% of Britons now think the income gap is too large, and the message has been taken up by world leaders.
According to Barack Obama, income inequality is the “defining challenge of our times”, while Pope Francis states that “inequality is the roots of social ills”.
The unexpected success of The Spirit Level owes more to luck than judgment. Although serious non-fiction books rarely sell well, for a week or so we even outsold Jeremy Clarkson. We now feel a bit like the dog being wagged by its tail: in the past five years, we’ve given over 700 seminars and conference lectures. We’ve talked to academics, religious groups, thinktanks of both right and left, and to international agencies such as the UN, WHO, OECD, EU and ILO.
The truth is that human beings have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. The tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other.
As we looked at the data, it became clear that, as well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society. When he found how far up the income scale the health effects of inequality went, Harvard professor Ichiro Kawachi, one of the foremost researchers in this field, described inequality as a social pollutant. The health and social problems we looked at are between twice and 10 times as common in more unequal societies. The differences are so large because inequality affects such a large proportion of the population.
To the political defenders of inequality, the idea that too much inequality was an obstacle to a better society was a monstrous suggestion. They accused us of conjuring up the evidence with smoke and mirrors.
But since our book, research confirming both the basic pattern and the social mechanisms has mushroomed. It’s not just rich countries or US states where greater equality is beneficial, it is also important in poorer countries. Even the more equal provinces of China do better than the less equal ones.