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.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

4 Responses to “Equality”

  1. Bev says:

    Thanks for the review. I reserved a copy at the library and noticed Christopher Snowden’s “The Spirit Level Delusion” at the same time. In a striking display of confirmation bias, I did not reserve the Snowden because I simply cannot bear the thought of wasting any of my allotted hours on this planet on his kind.

  2. Hello Bev. I found it very convincing and positive. Had the feel of a book that could genuinely make a difference. Not purely theoretical or overly optimistic. Well worth a read. I suppose you could read the Snowden book for balance too, but it mainly confirms your (well, my) prejudices that those on the right are weird, dumb Bond villains.

  3. Sasha says:

    Equality is an important lens to use when considering policies, yes. And I have found it helpful to go even further and think about political, social, and economic equity.

    As the author of this little bit (http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2011/11/02/equity-and-equality) nicely points out, the lens of equity can provide a more nuanced understanding of the forces that create inequality.

  4. I’m still mulling this one over. As much as I love a fine-tuning of popular grammar, the distinction feels a tad glib. Is anyone really implying total sameness when they talk about ‘equality’? I don’t think anyone thinks this isn’t an issue of fairness.

    It does at least offer a brilliant line of defense when someone brings up the Handicapper General argument: it shows that addressing what we usually call ‘inequality’ does not amount to discouraging excellence.

Leave a Reply

Latest issues and offers


Issue 14

Our latest issue. Featuring interviews with Caitlin Doughty and the Iceman, with columns by McKinley Valentine, David Cain, Tom Hodgkinson, and Jacob Lund Fisker. 88 pages. £9.


Two-issue Subscription

Get the current and next issue of New Escapologist. 176 pages. £16.

Four-issue Subscription

Get the current and next three issues of New Escapologist. 352 pages. £36.

PDF Archive

Issues 1-13 in PDF format. Over a thousand digital pages to preserve our 2007-2017 archive. 1,160 pages. £25.