The Spirit Level Debate – Inequality is Contentious

One of the sources I quote a number of times in Other is The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The thrust of their thesis is very simple: by collating hundreds of studies over a long period of time they have concluded that the single most important factor in improving the lives of everyone within a society is to decrease the gap between the richest and the poorest. Whether one looks at obesity, youth crime, teenage pregnancy, mental health, community cohesion, prison populations or a whole range of other measures – all of them are better in more equal societies.

The book, published last year, has been hugely important in informing policy debate at all sorts of levels. But it has recently come under attack from various angles, in particular in a report from The Policy Exchange by Peter Saunders and in a book called The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowden. Both have tried to undermine the conclusions drawn by Wilkinson and Pickett by critiquing the statistical significance of their findings, and questioning their methodologies too.

However, Wilkinson and Pickett have come out fighting, and have published a comprehensive rebuttal of the criticisms. They also took part in a debate at the Royal Society of the Arts with Saunders and Snowden, and you can hear the audio and see the slides of the graphs used here (copy of Wilkinson and Pickett’s slides above). Each side is given 15 mins, with questions and concluding statements too.

It’s a hugely important debate about fairness in society, and it’s no surprise that the report by The Policy Exchange has come from a very right-wing foundation, which would clearly see that the rich benefit from having a low-paid working class. If Wilkinson and Pickett are right though, this is hugely short-sighted: a more unequal society will see more violence and more problems for ALL members – rich or poor.