Book Review: The Spirit Level - Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

By Glenn Ashton · 8 Jul 2009

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Pink Sherbert
Picture: Pink Sherbert

Book: The Spirit Level

By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Published by Allen Lane/Penguin

ISBN: 978-1-846-14039-6

You know how you feel when you see a new product that seems so intuitive, so obvious, you wished you had invented it?

Some time ago I found myself wondering why nobody has yet managed to put together, in a convincing way, the thesis that unequal societies are far more prone to social ills than those with greater financial equality.

Even before I read 'The Spirit Level', just scanning the back cover blurb led me to wonder why on earth I had not considered writing on this topic. But the reality is that the authors have considered these issues related to inequality for over 50 person years of study between them, rendering them rather more expert and persuasive in their presentation than a hackneyed dilettante.

Not only is this book about engaging with the obvious relationships between income disparity and its various effects, but also, it closely examines some apparent contradictions in how modern society operates. We are taken on a journey that examines the relationships between the ills of the modern world and social inequality. Rates of violence, obesity, mental health, aggression, happiness, teenage pregnancy, imprisonment, punishment, education and social mobility are all shown to be intimately linked to social inequality brought about by economic inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett have managed to put together, in a brief volume, a series of analyses that lead inexorably to the conclusion that inequality is bad for everyone and conversely that equality is beneficial to society at large. That these realities have stared us in the face for much of modern history makes one consider why it was not written years, decades or even centuries ago. The fact is, the hard statistical science has only recently become available to incontrovertibly make the case.

This book is probably the most important analysis of why our modern civilisation is failing in so many ways. And equally importantly it plots out some real solutions in how we may be able to correct the situation from both national and international perspectives, mainly by not dealing with the results of inequality, but the causes.

What is remarkable is that inequality does not only negatively affect the poor. In unequal societies even the rich are less healthy, more obese and prone to mental illnesses. A more equal, egalitarian society does indeed create a better life for all. The quality of life in the Scandinavian nations is far better than in the United States of America (USA) or the United Kingdom (UK), let alone Sierra Leone or Equatorial Guinea.

While the book primarily considers examples of failures within the developed world, this is mainly because developed nations collect good statistics and records. But extrapolations of the conclusions remain applicable to any country on earth, particularly ours. What happens in the macrocosm is equally applicable to the microcosm. The greater the degree of income inequality the greater the chances of having high crime rates, poor educational systems, large prison populations and problems with poor health such as obesity and higher proportions of mental disease. Inequality inevitably drives these outcomes, across the board.

'The Spirit Level' also examines the USA from a state-by-state perspective and finds the same patterns repeated as occur within nations. For example, regarding imprisonment and punishment, there is clear evidence that proportionately more people are in jail in more unequal US states – so Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama have around triple the proportion of prisoners of Maine, Minnesota and Vermont. Interestingly, states that retain the death penalty also have more prisoners. Internationally, the USA, with the highest rates of income disparity, has an imprisonment rate four and a half times that of the UK and fourteen times more than Japan, which has the lowest income inequality of any developed nation – and the longest life span.

The same trends repeat throughout the book. They are represented in simple, easily understood graphical forms that reinforce the technical but accessible text. This is not a boring rehash of statistics but rational conclusions that are juxtaposed against our reality.

Were these trends the only conclusions, this would still be an incredibly important book. But the authors go further and present some practical mechanisms to deal, not only with the inequality itself, but also with global problems that stem from inequality. Issues like global warming, geo-political instability and the sustainability of our market dominated global society are dealt with in practical, creative and insightful passages that are difficult to dismiss.

For instance in enquiring how we can create the necessary political will within our societies, the authors write:

The strength of the evidence that a more equal society is a better society has a key role to play in changing public opinion. Many people have a strong personal belief in greater equality and fairness, but these values have remained private intuitions, which they fear others do not share. The advantage of the growing body of evidence of the harm inflicted by inequality is that it turns what were purely personal intuitions into publicly demonstrable facts. This will substantially increase the confidence of those who have always shared these values and encourage them to take action. In addition, some people will change their views in the light of the new evidence.

Through sharing such insights, this book casts a creative foundation for new initiatives toward building a better world.

For South Africans this book underlines some of our all too familiar social shortcomings. By internalising its messages we are able to recognise the need to shift beyond a polarised historical discourse towards the imperative that we need to re-examine our society taking lessons from both local and global perspectives and contextualisation.

Wilkinson and Pickett conclude that in order to create a more just and sustainable world we need far greater democratic control and social cohesion in running our world, from the local to the global.

One of their most notable observations is their critique of the markedly undemocratic role of corporations. They show how, through the increased power and influence of corporations over the past few decades – driven by the profit motive that is their raison d'être – they have had a malign influence in ramping up national and global inequality.

While this book is academic, it remains accessible. It is a book that should be widely read, discussed and absorbed, especially by those in power. We would all benefit if every single leader in South Africa – and the world for that matter - were to get a copy, or at least an accurate synopsis.

Even if our leaders do not read this book, its influence will nevertheless be profound. This is a seminal work that will reshape social, political and personal perspectives. The paradigm has truly been shifted but only insofar as our intuitive conclusions are solidly reinforced by relevant and accessibly presented data. And we cannot disagree that a global change of perspective is way overdue.

This is not only the most important book of the year; it is one of the defining books of this century and of our age. Its obvious conclusions are startling in their clarity and sobering in the simplicity of the solutions that are floated to deal with the challenges we face.

To examine some of concepts within the book visit – because more equal societies work better for everyone.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Rory Short
10 Jul

Unequal Societies

Richard Wilkinson has written two other books on this theme:
- Unhealthy Societies: The Affliction of Inequality,
- The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier
I have read the fiirst of these and it too is a seminal work and should be compulsory reading for everybody, certainly for business leaders and politicians.

Respond to this comment