Feb 24 2012

The Spirit Level

Published by under Talks

Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (Hardcover) or Why Equality Is Better For Everyone (Paperback)

Profs Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin paperback, $31)


The book deals with data from 23 rich countries (p275), published by the World Bank in 2004 and shows…


  • The richest 20% are many times richer than the poorest 20% in some countries (fig 2.1, p17)
  • As income inequality rises, the index of health and social problems rises (fig 2.2 p20)
  • As income inequality rises, the UNICEF index of child well-being gets worse (fig 2.6, p23)
  • As income inequality rises, the % people trusting others falls (fig 4.1, p52)
  • As income inequality rises, the index of women’s status falls (fig 4.5, p60)
  • As income inequality rises, the % income spent on foreign aid falls (fig 4.6, p61)
  • As income inequality rises, the % population with mental illness rises (fig 5.1, p67)
  • As income inequality rises, the index of drug use rises (fig 5.3, p71)
  • As income inequality rises, the life expectancy (years) falls (fig 6.3, p82)
  • As income inequality rises, the infant mortality rate rises (fig 6.4, p82)

And there is more in a similar vein. The unsettling discovery from all of the above is that in New Zealand there is now a wide gap in income equality and we fare very badly on all the above measures.


Is inequality a “given” in societies? Since earliest times, the move away from the divine right of kings and absolute monarchs towards more democratic societies, with the abolition of slavery, female emancipation, independence from former colonial powers and so on, the world has been trending towards more equality. Thus, based on this very long-term trend, there is cause for optimism in the future. (One might add that with the engagement of Prince William to “commoner” Kate Middleton there is another indication of the change in traditional class boundaries in the UK).


However inequality has risen considerably in countries such as USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand, over the last 40 years. We remember how Rob Muldoon tried to keep the gap in New Zealand small through his interventionist policies but those policies of Reagan and Thatcher (followed in New Zealand by Douglas, Richardson and perhaps Shipley) allowed the gap to widen, to the benefit of a few but the detriment of many more.


Can anything be done to redress the balance? Some countries such as Japan score well on the indicators as they have a small level of inequality of income in the first place. Others, such as Finland, Norway and Sweden, score well as they use high rates of taxation to redistribute their wealth.


The authors suggest that now that we have hard facts, and the data are gathered from UN or state-provided sources which are internationally comparable (for example the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for education) we can examine our society and discuss the way we wish it to develop, to influence politicians to enact laws that will make life better for all and not just a few.

Alan Jackson


This is a significant book and deserves a place on the bookshelf of any Local Group. A video interview with the authors and the graphs can be freely downloaded from…


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