Wednesday 31 October 2012

More to equality than income differentials

The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin 2010)

In the course of doing background research for the forthcoming event The Great Debate: Whatever Happened to Equality?, I was struck by the way the discussion of equality has narrowed in recent times. For me equality has always been associated with the great thinkers of the Enlightenment who enabled all those who came after them to shake off the shackles of the preceding period, that of feudalism, in which any idea of a universal humanity was anathema. It was about equal rights, opportunity, universal suffrage, justice. Of course it has always been a contested concept but it is nevertheless one that has given rise to some of the most progressive developments of the last two and a half centuries. Thus it was with these eyes that I tucked into The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone with a hunger for something inspired and inspiring. I was sorely disappointed.

As well as personal recommendations of this influential text, the cover and inside sleeve includes a number of quotes which raised my expectations, such as:

‘A big idea, big enough to change political thinking’ Sunday Times
‘A sweeping theory of everything’ Guardian
‘A compass to rebuild our societies … a shining vision’ Johann Hari, Independent
‘A crucial contribution to the ideological argument … it provides a vital part of the intellectual manifesto on which the battle for a better society can be fought’ Roy Hattersley, New Statesman

This does not reflect my reading of the text - it is very narrow in focus and, while it occasionally nods to the wider ideas of equality to which I elude above, the bulk of the text is actually simply about income differentials, not equality. Every now and then the authors show that they are familiar with broader notions of equality, yet they fail to really engage with them. For example, at the end of Part One ‘Material Success, Social Failure’, in which they set out their central argument, they refer to the slogan of the French Revolution ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’:

‘Liberty’ meant not being subservient or beholden to the feudal nobility or landed aristocracy. It was liberty from the feudal shackles of inferiority. Similarly, ’fraternity’ reflects a desire for greater mutuality and reciprocity in social relations … ‘Equality’ comes into the picture as a precondition to getting the other two right.

This is a reasonable summary (although I would argue more that the three things are inextricably intertwined rather than seeing equality as a ‘precondition’) but misses the point that none of the words in the slogan have anything to do with income inequality. The authors conflate the broader idea of equality associated with the revolutionary period of capitalism with their narrow use of the term, and that is a problem that runs throughout the book.

This conflation is most striking when they make what appear to be general statements about equality. For example they describe Japan as the most equal of the rich market democracies and the USA as the least (p44). They clearly mean that income differentials are the smallest and largest in Japan and USA respectively, but their terminology obscures that meaning – I suspect that there are few if any other measures by which Japan would be argued to be the most equal rich market democracy, nor the USA the least. At certain points the authors seem to recognise this – for example in Chapter 13, p183 they contrast family structures and the position of women in two countries that have the lowest income differentials: Japan and Sweden, noting that in these respects they ‘come at opposite ends of the spectrum. Sweden has a very high proportion of births outside marriage and women are almost equally represented in politics. In Japan the opposite is true’. This really undermines the strength of their argument and, more importantly, highlights the problem of their approach for using this type of evidence to support the notion of equality more generally – this is something most of the reviewers seem to have missed. Nothing in this text supports any aspect of political equality, equal rights nor any other of the great ideals generally associated with the notion of equality.

Nevertheless, The Spirit Level is an interesting read and is very well-researched and presented – the evidence for a link between greater income differences within countries and within states of the USA and a whole raft of social problems is compelling, and much of the book is fascinating from that point of view. The most disappointing thing is that the book is infused with a number of common prejudices about humanity and the environment that tend to close down possibilities for social progress, undermining the book’s own central tenet, and I will discuss that in more detail below.

Let us deal with the evidence presented first. For the sake of conciseness I will adopt Wilkinson and Pickett’s terminology and refer to large differences in income within a society or state as ‘income inequality’ and small differences as ‘income equality’. Part Two of the book, ‘The Costs of Inequality’, deals in some detail with the relationship between income inequality and social problems, arguing that inequality is associated with, among other things, poor quality social relations, lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birth weight, greater rates of AIDs, depression, obesity, teenage births and violence.

This section is scattered with graphs showing correlations between these problems and income differences based on years of research both by the authors and others. Some of these are less convincing than others, and the authors have already been taken to task by others on their inability to explain various outliers and anomalies in the data presented in support of their case, but to their credit the evidence does appear to be presented warts and all. A more selective choice of data could have made their case seem more watertight, and this shows a real commitment to good research reporting, which is admirable. This is by far the best bit of the book and, even if the authors’ interpretation and description of their data is occasionally bizarre, there is no doubt that what it shows deserves serious consideration.

What is most interesting, and the least expected, of this data, is that it appears to show that the absolute wealth of a country or state has little association with the social problems analysed, while differences in income within a country or state do show a clear correlation. What is more, it is not only those at the bottom of society appear to benefit from a more equal distribution of wealth: the positive effects are seen across whole populations. In Part Three they summarise this point: ‘rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal compared to the least unequal societies … in more unequal societies people are five times as likely to be imprisoned, six times as likely to be clinically obese, and murder rates may be several times higher. The reason why these differences are so big is … because the effects of inequality are not confined to the least well off: instead they affect the vast majority of the population’.

It is Part Three, ‘A Better Society’, that really fails to live up to its promise. The opening chapter of this section, ‘Dysfunctional societies’, starts off reasonably enough, highlighting key points of the research presented in Part Two, drawing attention to other possible explanations of the causes of the social problems discussed and showing how the evidence continues to point in the direction of income inequality as the major cause. After that, the authors descend into a highly dubious discussion of human nature and environmental thought that lets the book down.

In Chapter 14, ‘Our social inheritance’, the focus is on Evolutionary Psychology and neurological interpretations of what it is to be human.  They draw on the work of Marshall Sahlins, the author of Stone Age Economics (2003), making bizarre claims such as that, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, ‘social and economic life was based on systems of gift exchange, food sharing, and on a very high degree of equality’ (p201-202). It is hard to fathom where the authors think the evidence is for such a claim. They go on to fall into the same trap as many have before them of comparing human behaviour with other primates. At times they seem to recognise that it is not valid to make such comparisons because humans ‘are not … bound to any one social system’ and are highly adaptable enabling ‘us to live in very different social structures, both very egalitarian and very hierarchical’. They then discuss human behaviour in different societies with reference to different animal social systems. Thus on the one hand they seem to recognise the problems inherent in this approach, while on the other they persist with the comparisons anyway, arguing, for example, that ‘the same effects of hierarchy … still seem to be visible – even though the behavioural patterns are driven by culture rather than by instinct’. This is a most confused argument and raises the obvious question: why refer to primates at all?

They go on to discuss the difference between the social behaviour of our two closest relatives in the evolutionary chain, chimpanzees and bonobos, noting in particular how chimps exhibit aggressive and violent behaviour toward each other, live in hierarchical groups, and ‘resolve sexual issues (disputes) with power’, while bonobos demonstrate less conflict within and between neighbouring groups have less pronounced dominance hierarchies, have a high degree of sex equality, and tend to resolve power issues with sex. They comment: ‘It is perhaps comforting to know that, at least in this section of DNA, humans have the bonobos rather than the chimp pattern, suggesting that our common ancestor may have had a preference for making love rather than war’.

This a well-rehearsed argument, and one that has been prominent in many other texts and in a number of The Great Debate’s discussions over the years, but this view of human nature is highly contended – the idea that we are at the mercy of our evolutionary heritage is a common one, but it is one that is based on a degraded notion of what humanity is – one that is devoid of all the things that are great about people – our ability to make choices about things, to rationalise, to shape our environment and make history. In my view it is precisely what we are not. This is not an argument that there is space to explore in any depth here (see

The Great Debate website for a number of views on this topic). The point I would make is that such an uncritical view of some very poor reasoning does not seem to have a place in this book.

Similar deterministic arguments about human nature litter the rest of Chapter 14. These to me undermine the authors’ intention to argue for greater income equality, which has to be based on a social analysis. They fall into the trap of calling on a biological understanding of our nature as opposed to a social one. For example, there are discussions of mirror neurons and empathy, and of oxytocin and trust. These call on specific aspects of brain structure and chemistry to make points about human behaviour – such arguments are full of pitfalls, one of which is that they are highly selective of which chemical or type of neuron are discussed. This is quite the opposite of the ‘warts and all’ approach to presenting data adopted by the authors in the earlier part of the book.

Then we come to Chapter 15, ‘Equality and Sustainability’, which is the weakest section of the book. Here, rather than fulfilling its promise of offering a new vision for a way forward for society, this chapter rehashes the same ideas that run through all mainstream thought today, again in a disappointingly uncritical manner. In setting out their stall at the beginning of the chapter they state that ‘politics seem likely to be dominated either by efforts to prevent runaway global warming or, if they fail, by attempts to deal with its consequences’.

Yet there is no evidence to back up this assertion. Most scientists and engineers accept that climate change is a real phenomenon and that human activity plays a part in causing it, and yes, dealing with it is a social matter as well as a technical one, but to claim that climate change will dominate politics is ludicrous. We live in a world in global financial crisis, where austerity is the order of the day throughout the developed world and ordinary people’s living standards are dropping by the day; where global military expenditure stands at over $1.7 trillion a year; where 25,000 people die every day of hunger-related causes while there is enough food for all; where billions live in under-developed countries without basic necessities; where women are still second class citizens in dozens of countries. These are just a few of the issues facing humanity. Are we really expected to take at face value the claim that climate change is the most pressing political issue of our time?

The authors go on to argue that greater (income) equality and policies to reduce carbon emissions are complementary – but this is simply code for even more austerity. The grand idea of income equality (we used to talk about redistributing the wealth of society) is transformed into one of lowering expectations and withdrawing from the idea of economic growth, which is sadly an argument that is all too common today. They think it ‘fortunate’ to ‘learn that further economic growth in the developed world no longer improves health, happiness or measures of wellbeing’. This seems a strange claim considering all the research presented earlier in the book – one might expect them rather to argue that the benefits of growth are only seen in countries with a small income differential! The authors propose individual carbon rations as a way of reducing carbon emissions ‘fairly’, likening the system to that of British World War II rationing (the system of austerity that kept people under rationing for nine years after the end of the war). They suggest ‘tradable carbon quotas’ which would allow the rich to buy other people’s unused carbon ration as their grand idea for how to redistribute wealth, which frankly is a far cry from a call for more equality.

One of the most bizarre claims they make is that new technology cannot solve the problem of carbon emissions. This misses the glaringly obvious counter point that reducing carbon emissions is an attempt at a technical solution to deal with the anthropogenic contribution to climate change. More importantly, this claim simply makes no sense – how can we possibly know what new technology can or cannot do? The nature of new knowledge and its application is that it allows us to do things we previously could not do. An example of this is the rapidly developing area of geo-engineering which includes a whole range of technologies that may enable us to intervene to reduce or even reverse climate change. But this is not the train of the authors’ argument – they make these points to support the idea that we should all lower our consumption. Even greater efficiency is not seen as a good thing in this light. They say, ‘More efficient washing machines or better insulated homes … cut our bills, and that immediately means we lose some of the environmental gains by spending the saved money on something else’. Their argument is that ‘we have to move to something more like the steady-state economy first proposed by economist Herman Daly’ and propose ‘contraction and convergence’ policies internationally which would mean ‘a year-on-year contraction in permitted emissions levels, leading to an eventual convergence on equal per capita emissions across the planet’. So the discussion of equality is reduced to an argument for equal carbon rations!

We are then subjected to a discussion of consumerism, which the authors seem to conflate with economic growth. We are told that ‘rather than assuming that we are stuck with levels of consumption, individualism and materialism which must defeat any attempts to develop sustainable economic systems, we need to recognize that these are not fixed expressions of human nature’. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the arguments in the previous chapter and raises the question why the authors included the discussion of Evolutionary Psychology at all.

In Chapter 16, ‘Building the Future’, the contradictions and conflations running throughout the book really come to the fore, leaving one with a sense of confusion rather than a clear vision for a way forward. The authors begin by proposing democratic employee-ownership as a mechanism for creating a better society. They argue that employee share ownership schemes ‘combined with more participative management methods’ would solve many social problems by creating a sense of community in the work place. They refer back to greater income inequality being ‘associated with more cohesive communities and higher levels of trust’ and say that ‘at work there is the potential for people to find a nucleus of friendship and to feel valued’.

The claims become increasingly inflated as this discussion continues, as we are told employee-ownership and control would extend liberty and democracy; would enable ‘a process of social emancipation as people become members of a team’; would involve ‘a very substantial redistribution of wealth”; ‘is likely to improve sociability in the wider society’; could be a means of ‘transforming our societies’; and ‘might maintain higher standards of morality even with the profit motive’. Yet there is no evidence to back up any of these claims. There is one anecdote about the authors visiting two small companies with different structures, but a sample size of two hardly seems in keeping with the carefully collected evidence presented earlier in the book. What is most disappointing is that this section exhibits such a failure of the imagination – is this really the big idea that came out of all this research?

As the chapter progresses there are some excellent points in the text in which a broader understanding of equality comes to the fore. At these points the authors seem to recognise the complementarity of liberty and equality, discussing ‘equality before the law, equality of opportunity, equality of all parties to a contract …’ and talk about the ‘almost unstoppable historical trend towards greater equality. It runs like a river of human progress from the first constitutional limitations on the ‘divine’ (and arbitrary) rights of kings’. They draw attention to a whole raft of progressive changes that have rested on the notion of equality including the abolition of slavery, extension of the franchise, development of free education, health services, the welfare state, legislation to protect employees and tenants, legislation to prevent racial discrimination, the decline of class deference and the abolition of capital and corporal punishment. Yet the authors still seem to fail to recognise that none of these great steps in social progress had anything to do with income and continue to conflate their narrow notion of (income) equality with this wider set of ideals.

This section is also littered with some strange claims such as ‘America gave up its historical commitment to equality’ in response to the Cold War and that in human prehistory (the Stone Age?) ‘we lived in remarkably equal societies, maintaining a steady state – or sustainable – way of life in what some have called the “original affluent society”’. Again they are drawing on the work of Sahlins and EP, but this characterisation of the life of our ancestors is highly speculative, is based on flimsy evidence and is poor science – ‘Just So Stories’ for adults, which have no place in any discussion of this type.

As the book draws to a close one has a sense that the authors really want to say something about equality in the wider use of the term, but their repeated use of equality as a term to describe lower income differentials makes it hard to be sure how broadly to take what they say. Nevertheless there is some nice rhetoric as they write ‘creating a more equal society involves people speaking their minds, making the case, organizing and campaigning’, arguing that we need to create ‘the political will to make society more equal’, which is ‘dependent on the development of a vision of a better society’. Sadly, the authors have failed to present such a vision with their narrow take on equality. Perhaps it is inevitable that this approach (rather like the notion of ‘evidence-based policy’) falls short because the type of evidence presented in this book can never be the basis for the great vision and ideals that actually underlie the notion of equality.


The Great Debate is hosting a Battle of Ideas Satellite event on Whatever happened to Equality at Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, on Saturday 10 November 2012.


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