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Last among equals

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picke

It is, or ought to be, impossible to read The Spirit Level without feeling ashamed to discover that almost all the international comparisons of social well-being confirm that the UK has a worse record than almost every other prosperous country. Only in Portugal, Singapore and the United States of America is life expectancy lower and the infant mortality rate higher. The same picture emerges in the analysis of detriment after detriment. In the league table of teenage illiteracy, illegal drug use, adult obesity, underage pregnancy and mental illness, the UK faces relegation to the ranks of failing societies. The UK also appears near the top of those tables that measure income inequality. The correlation is near to absolute. Inequality goes hand in hand with the social diseases that blight whole communities. The rational conclusion to be drawn from the mass of evidence that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have assembled is that all of us, irrespective of income, have much to gain from the creation of a more equal society.

This is what makes The Spirit Level such a crucial contribution to the ideological argument. It demonstrates the scientific truth of the assertion that social democrats have made for a hundred years – sometimes more out of hope than intellectual certainty. And for readers with more basic political tastes, it offers what ought to restore the morale of the Labour Party: the doctrine which is, or should be, at the heart of its programme has a universal application. Equality is not just a policy for the poor; it benefits us all and, therefore, should appeal to us all. Perhaps a very few neocons, living in gated estates and buying private pensions and health care, ask what it matters to them if, in the world outside, there is violence on the streets and poverty in the inner cities. But Wilkinson and Pickett take the argument for equality a stage further than the guarantee of the civic “tranquillity” that Tony Crosland said was equality’s bonus. On the basis of research – not hunch – they conclude that many, perhaps most, members of affluent societies want to “move away from greed and excess towards a way of life more centred on values. In consequence, they become reluctant and unhappy competitors in the rat race.

So, the vulgarities of New Labour are (or were) as politically unproductive as they were embarrassing. Hazel Blears’s notorious defence of the £10,000 handbag puts into perspective what “the project” really meant by “meeting the aspirations of the people”. The aspiration that the Blairites had in mind was the acquisition of higher incomes and more property. For years, Labour was said to lose votes by assuming that the electorate shared its lofty ideas about the good society. It now seems that the party has sacrificed support by underestimating the appeal of what used to be its vision of a better future. Altruism and self-interest combine. All we now need are politicians with the courage to say so and the will to introduce policies which offer a more rewarding life than the chance to have a bigger motor car than the family next door.

For me, the most dispiriting event during Tony Blair’s Downing Street years was his refusal, when pressed by Jeremy Paxman, to express regret that, during his premiership, the gap between rich and poor had widened. His reply was that it was by changes in the absolute, rather than the relative incomes of the poor, that his governments should be judged. At the time I regarded the answer as inadequate for reasons that it was hard to believe the then prime minister did not recognise. A widening income gap amounts to a demonstration of the government’s reluctance to fight deprivation with all the (redistributive) weapons at its disposal. And the penalties of poverty include the loss of influence, status and respect which come from being at the bottom of the heap. It is now clear that he also misjudged the mood of the nation. And the rejection of his enthusiasm for “more millionaires” has increased with the years. ICM reported this past week that 82 per cent of people polled “wanted the government to take active steps to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor”. People are wiser than their politicians realise.

Historically, egalitarians have believed that an expanding GDP, if not essential to increased equality, made its extension easier. The Spirit Level contends that many developed nations “have got to the end of what economic growth can do for the quality of life”. Certainly economic growth is not desirable per se and, whatever its purposes and results, it is likely to endanger the environment. The evidence suggests more and more people have abandoned the idea that fulfilment consists in acquiring more and more consumer durables and portable property.

The Spirit Level, not surprisingly, tells us that as prosperity increases, “further rises in income count for less and less”. That is, incidentally, the utilitarian case for greater equality. A pound has greater value to the poor than to the rich. Luxury goods and services, essentially the product of competitive relationships, are losing their allure; instead – on the Wilkinson-Pickett evidence – a sense of community and the reassurance of friendship are becoming the essential features of a contented existence. But surely there is a case for economic growth when its fruits are used, through redistribution, to create greater equality? If the growth of GDP in Britain doubled, surely we could use the increment to build affordable housing, or sink wells in Africa?

The Wilkinson-Pickett answer to that question is complicated by their attitude to averages and state power. The book begins with the explanation that “economic growth and increase in average incomes have not contributed much to well-being in rich countries”. Nobody who understood the nature of averages thought they had. The rich got richer and therefore increased the mean, though probably not the median, income without affecting the living standards of the poor. That is why it is necessary for governments to intervene in the market economy – which, by its nature, extends income differentials – and redistribute wealth.

Yet The Spirit Level either believes in small government or despairs of politicians ever doing the right thing. The pessimism is understandable, if not justified, when Wilkinson-Pickett’s statistics show that income inequality in Britain and the US is now nearly 40 per cent greater than it was in the 1970s. So, the authors state: “Rather than simply waiting for the government to do it for us, we have to start making [the more equal society] in our lives and institutions straight away.” They are correct in saying that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but it may take longer to achieve a moral osmosis than to re-establish ideological politics.

No one can doubt that “mainstream politics . . . has abandoned the attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society”. But mainstream politics can change, and the change should come about now. The old acquisitive order has failed – even by its own standards. Unless progressive politicians are stupid as well as craven they will seize the moment to argue for the egalitarian alternative. The importance of The Spirit Level is that, together with Richard Layard’s Happiness, it provides a vital part of the intellectual manifesto on which the battle for a better society can be fought.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power