The Return of The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone

The Spirit Level's message on income equality and its benefits is more relevant than ever in the Coalition era. David Beetham reviews the new edition of the book, in which the authors expand and update their analysis.

In a review of Wilkinson and Pickett’s first edition of their book for OurKingdom in April this year, I discussed their central finding that the greater the level of income inequality in a society, the more widespread a whole range of social ills are to be found, across all income groups. Governments which spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money combating these ills are dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause, they conclude, and would do better to address the level of income inequality directly.

In an additional chapter written for a new edition of the book, the authors do three things. The first is to explain why the message of the book has met with such an overwhelming response from readers and audiences at their many lectures. The reason is that the great majority of citizens in unequal societies of the developed world are ‘closet egalitarians’: they would prefer greater income equality, even though they typically underestimate the extent of inequality that actually prevails. The book has given them compelling evidence to support their intuitive view and to come out of the closet, at the same time as the self-serving justifications for grotesque salaries and bonuses in the financial and corporate sector have been exposed as bogus.

A second purpose of the new chapter is to respond to criticisms of their original findings, and to correct misunderstandings or misrepresentations of their argument. In this context, it seems to me that many of the points made by Gerry Hassan in his review of the book are wide of the mark, not least his claim that the authors ignore the origins of growing inequality in neo-liberal ideology, which is simply wrong. Indeed in this new chapter they identify a strand of criticism of their work which is driven by vested interests in free market fundamentalism, whom they describe as ‘merchants of doubt’, and whose purpose is to discredit established scientific findings in politically sensitive areas, from tobacco smoke to climate change, and to convince the public that they comprise only one possible opinion. Unfortunately, they argue, misplaced ideas of ‘balance’ in the public media may give these doubt merchants equal exposure to the vast majority of scientists who are expert in the subject. And it is the huge body of scientific findings that they cite in support of their work that gives it credibility.

A third task of the additional chapter is to extend the authors’ analysis of the effects of inequality into new areas. Thus they cite evidence which shows a causal link between rapidly rising inequality and the financial crashes of 1929 and 2008, including estimations that in the years before 2008 ‘about 1.5 trillion dollars per year were being siphoned off from the bottom 90 per cent of the US population to the top ten per cent’, reinforcing a massive demand and supply for debt finance. They examine the distorting effects of inequality on the quality of democracy at a number of levels, and they provide new evidence that social mobility declines as inequality rises.

My April review of the first edition of the book was written with the outcome of the forthcoming election still in doubt. Now we know that the effect of the new government’s policies will be to depress incomes at the bottom still further while doing nothing to restrain those at the top. In short, the anti-egalitarian thrust of public policy that began under Thatcher with market deregulation, and continued under New Labour, will only intensify. Even now, an investment banker in the UK can earn a hundred times what a bank clerk does. In the light of this, Cameron’s introduction of a happiness index and Clegg’s talk of improving social mobility are not merely pie in the sky, but look like a cynical piece of window dressing. Whether Will Hutton’s review of public sector salary differentials will do anything to change views among the government, as opposed to the majority of the governed, is open to doubt.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote that, although economic equality might be too much to hope for, a ratio of ten to one between top and bottom earnings was something he would approve of. This now seems like a voice from another planet.