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Equitable societies are better for everyone


March 2, 2009

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, a book published by Penguin this month (March, 2009).

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, a book published by Penguin this month (March, 2009).

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In rich societies, poorer people have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Likewise, large inequalities of income are often regarded as divisive and corrosive. Now, in a groundbreaking book, UK-based researchers go beyond either of these ideas to demonstrate that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them — the well-off as well as the poor. The authors forcefully demonstrate that nearly every modern social and environmental problem — ill-health, lack of community, life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours, big prison populations — is more likely to occur in a less equal society, and adversely affects all of those within it.

The remarkable data the book presents and the measures it uses are like a spirit level which we can hold up to compare the conditions of different societies. It reveals that if Britain became as equal as the average for the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland), levels of trust might be expected to increase by two-thirds, homicide rates could fall by 75 per cent, everyone could get the equivalent of almost seven weeks extra holiday a year, and governments could be closing prisons all over the country.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, shows us how, after a point, additional income buys less and less additional health, happiness and wellbeing. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other. This important book explains how it is now possible to piece together a new, compelling and coherent picture of how we can release societies from the grip of pervasive and schismatic dysfunctional behaviour, a picture which will revitalise politics and provide a new way of thinking about how we organise human communities. It is a major new approach to how we can improve the real quality of life, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

The authors of the book are Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research and his work has been published in 10 languages. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics before training in epidemiology and is Professor Emeritus at The University of Nottingham Medical School and Honorary Professor at University College London.

Kate Pickett is a Senior Lecturer at the University of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She studied physical anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at Berkeley before spending four years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago.

Together they have founded The Equality Trust, a charitable trust which seeks to explain the benefits of a more equal society.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon

@wchunko: At the basis of all science is hypothesis and experiment. You start by a hypothesis and verify your assumptions though an experiment. It is inconclusive at best to say "they have started with their conclusion", you might say they have made an assumption and followed with a study to show it, which is science, or perhaps they have made a study and then concluded...,which is still science. In either case it is highly recommended to read the study before concluding something about it.


It would appear from the last line in this article, "Together they have founded The Equality Trust, a charitable trust which seeks to explain the benefits of a more equal society.", that Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Pickett have started with their conclusion, and then created a study to support it. This is incredibly bad science. In fact it is not really science, it is merely their ideology masquerading as science in an attempt to make it seen legitimate.


In fact, we wrote our book, and established The Equality Trust, after more than 40 years research between the two of us, studying the effects of inequality on health and other social problems. We at last feel sufficiently confident of the effects of inequality that we (and others) have identified to move from research to trying to increase public awareness of the findings.

However, on a methodological point, as Professor Sir Karl Popper pointed out many years ago, it is not the sources of scientific theories which have to be unbiased, but the methods of testing them.

We do hope you will enjoy the book. Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson.

Kate Pickett Wilkinson

In a civilized society like the US or Britain I could make the choices for someone so as to keep them out of poverty and thus narrow some of this inequity. I of course have a problem with using inequity as it implies unfairness, favoritism or bias. And of course I can't make choices for someone else, only they can do that. The rich are rich because they keep doing the things which made them rich, ditto for the poor.


To Pickett and Wilkinson: Since both of you essentially never left college, your worldview peers through the bars of the communist structure of academia. There is no meritocracy. No accountability. You are all the same, as you would have our world become.

You have never seen the benefits of the free market because you choose not to participate in it and distinguish yourself there. As a result your only work product is a written critique of those outside your world; a world you never had the guts to join and benefit from. Only in academia does this qualify as valuable work. Nobody has any use for it anywhere else.

Your paycheck - such as it is - comes from the taxes of we who work in the private sector to support you, where the number of academic degrees mean far less than creativity, motivation and vision.

You can lash out at the outside world all you like, but those of us who made the transition there haven't seen a good reason to go back to college.

Todd Dunning

@stimulus_package: Actually, that's not correct. You start with your hypothesis and test it. If the data contradicts your hypothesis then you are compelled to modify (or change) the hypothesis.


Ms Pickett,

Thank you for your response. When it comes to reading the results of someones study, I think you'll agree that one really must consider the source and just what their interest is in them. The classic example would be all those studies funded by the tobacco companies that claimed smoking was harmless and nonaddictive. A healthy sense of skepticism is warranted. However, since I've opened this can of worms, I guess I'll have to read the book.


William J Chunko


wchunko your first post was spot on. But you have not opened a can of worms; you ask tough questions. Your example with tobacco company 'research' being scandalously financially conflicted is pertinent today also in global warming ...er... climate change.

The same conflict occurs when Marxists from academia must slum with the bourgeois and author a product that they must sell on the market for ...gulp... money. But the day they sell a million copies, the next title will be "Equities and Exchange Traded Funds".

Todd Dunning

Have not seen the book yet. Wondering though whether country comparisons make any sense, without controlling for ethnic composition and immigration policies. Those Nordics are all tiny homogenous nations, with the societal structure having little to do with Britain or the US. Same problem applies to calculation of all kinds of development indexes (mortality rate etc.) If those "externalities" are not controlled for, it is just an exercise in a politically correct posturing. Would the authors care to comment?


Well look at that... a whole bunch of indignant conservative Americans indignantly, conservatively commenting...

... although none of them have actually read the book, or seen the research, and in all likelihood none ever will.

And meantime, after what is it? 8? Years of (trumpeted) conservative rule, the country is in ruins. The military has no credibility, the economy is so bad signs are you'll lose the dollar, America's international standing is in ruins... 1/31 Americans are in the penal system, working/middle class income hasn't increased in real terms since the 80s and you've just given trillions of dollars - your children and grandchildren's taxes to the small percentage of the population are responsible for so much of this disaster... so they can keep their bonuses... and you get nothing.

... and you still think you're right. You still employ the same wonderful twists of logic that got you into this mess.

Take a look at the world. Who is getting the best results? What are they doing?

How on earth did you get to the point where you actually believe that doing the opposite is going to get better results? After you actually tried the opposite, and it's failed?



What I find particularly amusing is the automatic attempt to label any researcher as Marxist. Classic conservative tactic: where you cannot argue logically, immediately attempt to smear the opponent. It certainly shows off the hallmarks of so-called conservative thought: a lack of creativity, flexibility, and a total disdain for reasoned debate. It must be deeply unnerving for such people to encounter a forum where the word Marxist doesnt instantly produce a wail of terror.

Props to Pickett and Wilkinson for being prepared to speak up in this forum, and for maintaining the civil approach. Props to WJChunko for being prepared to recognise that he needs more information.

Citicrab: I question your assertion as to the homogeneity of either Denmark, or more particularly, Sweden. My understanding of Swedish recent history suggests that theyve had an extremely liberal immigration policy which has only very recently been altered, and as a result, they have quite a range of ethnicities within the country.


Most things are widely recognized as folk wisdom long before studies support them. This one sounds like the old "money is the root of all evil" saying. Think about how capitalism works. Farmers produce milk for sale - they get money back. They want more money, so they need more milk. They can get more volume by adding water, so they start that. Pretty soon all milk is diluted, so the dairy companies start testing for e.g. protein content. Farmers incomes go down, so they find a way to increase the protein content by adding melamine. Their incomes go up, people get sick. Root cause here is the financial incentive for farmers selling "protein".


LR. \"The Love of Money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after.... they have erred from the faith\"

Really that it s the sum of the matter...

It isn\'t money which causes so much misery, it really is Greed....

Countries which have the most severe disconnect between rich and poor, usually do have enough productivity to support a better life for the masses...

However it is often the Greed at the top, which siphons off the assets and cash to make their life that of a King, while the serfs suffer abject misery... (sure there are countries with GDP of less than $1000 per individual ($3 per day, but the people probably enmasse only get $1 per day )... maybe we should help those countries with assistance packages....(non recoverable assistance, but then there would be less incentive to develop, and possibly (definitely) in some of these countries wealth is not in terms of cash, but access to food, water, land, housing, so again categorising on the basis of Just money is not always a fair comparison...

We could go on to discussing the Inflationary effect of Usury (interest) and the desire for countries to have exponential growth of their GDP leading to poorer and poorer, poor people, and wealthier wealthy people...

Unfortunately we are all caught up in the societal treadmill of whichever country we live in.


hmm, i've heard that even good scientists starting with a conclusion call it a "hypothesis" and the study that supports it "proof"

that was in junior high, might have changed since then but i doubt it.

Jay Curtis
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