The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

by Polly Cleveland

Humans evolved in small highly-cooperative groups. Today’s surviving hunter-gatherer societies, like the !Kung of the Kalahari or the Hadza of the Rift Valley, teach toddlers their first lesson: share everything. In Mothers and Others (2009), Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues that, some million and a half years ago, shared child care in fact set human ancestors on the path to becoming modern big-brained humans.

Inequality arose only some 10,000 years ago when humans invented agriculture, and “privatized” the land. (I prefer Adam Smith’s term, “appropriated” the land; that is, took it away from the community.)

Given this history, perhaps it should not surprise us that modern inequality causes stress and social problems, not just among the very poor, but at all levels of society. That’s just what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett find in their new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.

There’s a long history behind this book. Wilkinson, a British epidemiologist, published research over twenty years ago on the health and longevity of a large sample of British bureaucrats. None of these men were poor, and all had access to the free British health care system. Yet Wilkinson found a direct positive correlation between health and rank, from bottom to top. He hypothesized that inequality caused stress that in turn affected health.

The Spirit Level (British for a carpenter’s level) expands Wilkinson’s study to comparisons between twenty-three developed countries, and the fifty states of the United States. Wilkinson and his partner Kate Pickett also cover not only health statistics, but statistics on social indicators including levels of trust, mental health and drug use, infant mortality and life expectancy, obesity, educational performance, teenage births, violence, imprisonment and punishment, and social mobility. Wilkinson and Pickett find that absolute levels of income in these twenty-three countries and fifty states have little obvious statistical effect on these social indicators. The US, the richest of the twenty-three countries, measures low on many indicators. However, when they rank countries and states by inequality (measured by the ratio of incomes of the top ten percent to those the bottom ten percent) they find a dramatic correlation between inequality and low rank on social indicators. As in their earlier studies, they attribute the effect to the stress of inequality.

Among the twenty-three or so countries, Singapore is most unequal, followed by the US. However, little Singapore generally does better than the US. The most equal are Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden, in that order. Despite a vast difference in culture, Japan far outperforms the others.

Among the fifty states, New York is by far the most unequal, yet does reasonably well on most statistics. (As the authors agreed when I asked them, New York really should have been two states: New York City, and upstate New York.) Not far behind New York are the usual suspects: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, performing dismally on all scales – as in fact do all the Old South states – the still-lingering legacy of slavery.

The most equal states are Alaska, Utah, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, in that order. Alaska significantly has the Permanent Fund, paying annual dividends to all its citizens. I have kept a close eye on New Hampshire over the years; by some other measures it is the most equal state of all. I believe it is no coincidence that New Hampshire is the last state to rely chiefly on the property tax – though citizen activists are working hard to change that. Wilkinson and Pickett note that New Hampshire’s neighbor, Vermont, while only slightly less equal by their measures, more than makes up for it by greater social spending.

When I first read Progress and Poverty some forty years ago, I thought Henry George went over the top in blaming unequal wealth not only for poverty, but also for social ills afflicting the middle class and the rich. These, he argued, were driven to greed, rapaciousness and corruption by the fear of losing their rank in society. As he wrote, “Poverty is the open-mouthed, relentless hell which yawns beneath civilized society.” Consequently: “Get money – honestly, if you can, but at any rate get money! This is the lesson that society is daily and hourly dinning in the ears of its members.” The more unequal a society, the more dangerous and unproductive it becomes.

Wilkinson and Picket have now put some stunning statistics behind George’s message! You can read more on their website, the Equality Trust.

And you can catch more of Polly’s provocative posts in the “Economici” series at her blog:

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