Book Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Fighting inequality could accomplish far more to reduce violence and unrest and cost less than imprisoning ever-larger numbers of the poor.

By Michael Borrelli
Published August 11, 2011

As fires burn and looters run amok across the UK, speculation abounds as to the root causes of the shocking violence. Though the civil disorder that has spread from London was initially triggered by the police killing of a 29-year-old father of four, it is hard to imagine that the memory of Mark Duggan is well served by these waves of violence.

To some observers, the source of the mayhem is obvious. Since his coalition government was elected last year, British PM David Cameron has embarked on an austerity program that has aggressively cut services, including social welfare programs that many Britons rely upon.

Cameron, meanwhile, has pinned the blame on a culture of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility that has apparently reached an ignition point.

Rhetoric aside, the arguments made by those claiming the UK's economic problems are to blame carry much more empirical weight. As with Egypt and Tunisia, two other countries that witnessed revolutions led by legions of unemployed and disenfranchised youth, the unrest in the UK is more likely the result of economic policies that have widened the gap between elites and those just struggling to get by.

The Spirit Level

It was mere coincidence that as London burned I was deep into one of the best non-fiction texts I have ever read. Published in 2009, The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury Press) by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is available at the HPL, and is a fascinating study of how socioeconomic inequality acts to tear societies apart.

This exhaustively researched book is built on a solid academic foundation, yet written for a mass audience. Its premise is as simple as it is powerful: using dozens of empirical studies by social scientists, economists and epidemiologists, Wilkinson and Pickett draw an indelible link between inequality and nine different social problems that plague Western society.

In chapter after chapter, the authors demonstrate that social dysfunction is not only correlated with, but is likely caused by large gaps in income within countries. From murder rates to teen pregnancy, mental health problems to mortality rates, socio-economic inequality (as measured by the ratios of income garnered by the top and bottom 20% of earners) predicts the prevalence of social problems with a remarkable consistency.

The authors convincingly argue that the gap between rich and poor, not average income or absolute poverty levels in a society, is the main culprit. A case in point is the effect of income on life expectancy.

Using readily available, official data, the authors show that a baby "born in one of the poorest western democracies, Greece, where average income is not much more than half of that of the USA," and where the government spends less than half as much on health care, has a life expectancy of 1.2 years longer than an American baby (pp. 79-80).

Moreover, citing peer reviewed studies, Wilkinson and Picket write, "Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birth weight, AIDS and depression" (p. 81).

Conservative Attitudes Self-Defeating

Meanwhile, they pile on evidence that conservative attitudes like David Cameron's are hopelessly self-defeating, cheating both the poor and rich alike.

Take crime and punishment as an example. The Spirit Level is not the first book to argue that punitive laws do nothing to lower crime rates, but the book clearly and succinctly explains how this approach to punishment is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Not only does the prevailing trend towards long, punitive prison sentences do nothing to lower crime rates, but "there appears to be a trend toward higher rates of re-offending in more punitive systems (in the USA and UK, re-offending rates are generally reported to be between 60 and 65 percent)" compared to 35-40 percent in less harsh systems (p. 154).

And this analysis doesn't even take into account the massive cost to taxpayers of building, maintaining and staffing prisons! Fighting inequality could accomplish far more, and cost less than imprisoning larger numbers of the poor (lower income folk are much more likely to be imprisoned than those higher up on the social ladder).

Without descending into Marxist polemic or revolutionary paean, The Spirit Level methodically lays out evidence that the growing gap between rich and poor is a recipe for social dysfunction and unrest.

The book also manages to chip away at the idea that "a rising tide lifts all boats" - the convenient myth that general improvements in the economy help everybody. There is an observable ceiling to this effect, and the West reached it two generations ago.

The benefits of development increasingly enrich a small elite class, but as The Spirit Level demonstrates, not even the rich can escape inequality's ill effects.


Michael Borrelli is a social researcher living with his family in Hamilton's North End. He tweets @BaysideBadger.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Mary (registered) | Posted August 11, 2011 at 07:29:56

Great article! I'll be sure to pick this book up as soon as possible and give it a read.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 11, 2011 at 07:29:58

To some observers, the source of mayhem are obvious.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:14:19

Government spending in the UK is currently running at about 47% of national output. Cameron wants to bring it down to about 40% (which is a bit higher than Canada I think). I would hardly call government spending of 40% of output austerity.

The UK has one of the highest stadards of living in the world and good social supports. If people don't like living in the UK perhaps they should consider moving to a middle eastern country or a sud-sahara nation in Africa and they can find out how crappy most people in the world live. Most people in the world would kill to live in the UK with all its welfare benefits.

The people rioting are nothing but spoiled bums.

As for the 29 year old father, maybe if he hadn't engaged in the risky business of drug dealing he would still be alive. Buy you convieniently leave that out of your article.

Permalink | Context

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted August 15, 2011 at 13:38:18 in reply to Comment 67856

Sorry I am only getting to replying now, but thanks to all who commented.

To you, Capitalist, I just shake my head in bewilderment. Mark Duggan didn't live in China or Singapore, so even if he was dealing drugs, he was not deserving of the death penalty.

And spoiled bums or not, those suffering from the reduction in social services must look at their elites and ask, "If they caused biggest economic collapse in a generation and are still making out like bandits, tell my why I shouldn't also."

Permalink | Context

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:46:57 in reply to Comment 67856

Tottenham, where Duggan was shot and the riots started is the most ethnically diverse neighbourhood in Europe. I suspect a good number of these rioters know exactly what it's like to live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I'm not saying it excuses the rioters actions either way. But we'll never understand these issues by coming to the most scornful conclusions possible based on little or no evidence.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 11, 2011 at 18:53:27

I lived in Britain for the better part of a decade and I was a little staggered by the contrast of how much we have in common with Brits...and how much we don't. I was in Brighton and Hove, and the council estates there may not have been replicas of some of the places where the most rioting has occurred, but even when I could have served as a microcosm.

The 'class system' in Britain has changed...and yet it hasn't. The references are just different. This isn't Britain of thirty-five years ago when authentic social unrest brought about authentic punk music and everything attached to it, but in certain ways, I'm wondering if it is.

I saw a clip of Daniel Craig commenting on the rioting during a 'Cowboys and Aliens' interview, and he said he couldn't understand what was going on. I just stared at the screen; he's a smart guy and he's that clued-out...?

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-11 18:53:41

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:11:44

What scares me so much about this whole situation is the prevailing notion that these riots happened because there wasn't enough policing in these ghettos. Many are now calling for far more in response. They're seeking advice from America, Northern Ireland...Cameron is even bashing the Human Rights Act. Given that the inciting incident was a lethal act of police brutality, can we really expect that more cops to solve the problem?

As Mystoneycreek mentions, we've seen before what happens to large unemployed/underemployed (many of these rioters had jobs) young people, particularly in Britain. Adding more cops with more power to the mix does little but "make good sport of it". Recently the Government has not only tripled university tuitions, but cut services in the area by 75%. Apparently the Guardian ran a story on closing youth centres in the area last month in which Tottenham youth they interviewed explicitly predicted riots as a result. People are giving up on society because they feel that society has given up on them, and store-fronts full of expensive merchandise make very easy targets.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Expat OUFC (anonymous) | Posted August 30, 2011 at 11:09:48

Superb article re. the riots in of all places the Torygraph...

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools