Undoubtedly late to the party, I recently read and enjoyed The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better.
The book is a fascinating body of evidence and a collection of intelligent suggestions about fixing the first-world problems of violence, mental illness, obesity, poor educational performance, teenage pregnancy, and barriers to social mobility. It is put forward that these problems can be tackled by addressing equality.
Using data from twenty-three rich countries and fifty US states, the authors found that such problems are considerably more common in less equal societies. As the most equal, the Scandinavian countries and Japan tend to be at one end of the scale, while the US, UK and Australia are at the shameful other. Social problems, the book shows, increase with inequality.
The political right are not fond of these findings (though David Cameron praised the book and seemed to take it quite seriously in its early days) and so various think tanks have emerged with the sole aim of debunking the thesis. Sensible debate should always be encouraged, but the think tanks don’t seem to engage very well with the evidence and instead focus on sewing seeds of doubt among those on the political right. This is a shame because we need the political right to get on board with this, or it’s a no-starter.
A prominent critic of The Spirit Level called Christopher Snowdon does not believe the claim that the psychological effects on society of income inequality are great enough to cause widespread social ills. He says, “I don’t think people outside the intelligentsia worry about inequality. The working class don’t worry about how much Wayne Rooney is earning.”
Urgh. First off, the working class (and I suppose I count myself in that, even though I don’t actually work) are most definitely bothered by the earnings of celebrity footballers: it’s a popular conversation topic in the pub and the entire of tabloid culture is based upon a complex working-class relationship with such tall poppies. Secondly, whether members of the working class worry about inequality is besides the point: a person doesn’t have to know she’s drinking contaminated water to be made sick by it.
This year’s riots in England were the result of people having no money in tough economic times, while simultaneously having their noses rubbed in the fact that they can’t have the material junk (read as lifestyles) that the rich have.
Escapologists should be interested in social equality because once we’ve freed ourselves from the shackles of work, debt and urban lethargy, we might want to help a few other people to escape too. A Spirit Level-inspired better world would be a truly massive prison break.
So please borrow The Spirit Level from the library, read it, and tell your pals about it too, especially the most Hitlerish of them. If you have blogs or whatever, there are various resources at the authors’ website to help get the word around. It’s the only way to counter the drivel from activists on the right.