The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Humans evolved in small highly-cooperative groups. Today’s surviving hunter-gatherer societies, like the !Kung of the Kalahari or the Hadza of the Rift Valley, teach toddlers their first lesson: share everything. In Mothers and Others (2009), Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues that, some million and a half years ago, shared child care in fact set human ancestors on the path to becoming modern big-brained humans.

Inequality arose only some 10,000 years ago when humans invented agriculture, and “privatized” the land. (I prefer Adam Smiths term, “appropriated” the land; that is, took it away from the community.)

Given this history, perhaps it should not surprise us that modern inequality causes stress and social problems, not just among the very poor, but at all levels of society. That’s just what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett find in their new book, The Spirit Level Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.

There’s a long history behind this book. Wilkinson, a British epidemiologist, published research over twenty years ago on the health and longevity of a large sample of British bureaucrats. None of these men were poor, and all had access to the free British health care system. Yet Wilkinson found a direct positive correlation between health and rank, from bottom to top. He hypothesized that inequality caused stress that in turn affected health.

The Spirit Level (British for a carpenter’s level) expands Wilkinson’s study to comparisons between twenty-three developed countries, and the fifty states of the United States. Wilkinson and his partner Kate Pickett also cover not only health statistics, but statistics on social indicators including levels of trust, mental health and drug use, infant mortality and life expectancy, obesity, educational performance, teenage births, violence, imprisonment and punishment, and social mobility. Wilkinson and Pickett find that absolute levels of income in these twenty-three countries and fifty states have little obvious statistical effect on these social indicators. The United States, the richest of the twenty-three countries, measures low on many indicators. However, when they rank countries and states by inequality (measured by the ratio of incomes of the top ten percent to those the bottom ten percent) they find a dramatic correlation between inequality and low rank on social indicators. As in their earlier studies, they attribute the effect to the stress of inequality.

Among the twenty-three or so countries, Singapore is most unequal, followed by the USA. However, little Singapore generally does better than the US. The most equal are Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden, in that order. Despite a vast difference in culture, Japan far outperforms the others.

Among the fifty states, New York is by far the most unequal, yet does reasonably well on most statistics. (As the authors agreed when I asked them, New York really should have been two states: New York City, and upstate New York.) Not far behind New York are the usual suspects: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, performing dismally on all scales–as in fact do all the Old South states–the still lingering legacy of slavery.

The most equal states are Alaska, Utah, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, in that order. Alaska significantly has the Permanent Fund, paying annual dividends to all its citizens. I have kept a close eye on New Hampshire over the years; by some other measures it is the most equal state of all. I believe it is no coincidence that New Hampshire is the last state to rely chiefly on the property tax–though citizen activists are working hard to change that. Wilkinson and Pickett note that New Hampshire’s neighbor, Vermont, while only slightly less equal by their measures, more than makes up for it by greater social spending.

When I first read Progress and Poverty some forty years ago, I thought Henry George went over the top in blaming unequal wealth not only for poverty, but also for social ills afflicting the middle class and the rich. These, he argued, were driven to greed, rapaciousness and corruption by the fear of losing their rank in society. As he wrote, “Poverty is the open-mouthed, relentless hell which yawns beneath civilized society.” Consequently: “Get money–honestly, if you can, but at any rate get money! This is the lesson that society is daily and hourly dinning in the ears of its members.” The more unequal a society, the more dangerous and unproductive it becomes.

Wilkinson and Pickett have now put some stunning statistics behind George’s message! You can read more on their website, the Equality Trust.

9 comments to The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

  • Bill Batt

    Polly, This is an interesting book. I’ve scanned it sitting on the floor of B&N, after first listening to the authors on BookTV. You can watch their presentation online by going to, and then typing in “spirit level” in the upper left corner. Interesting. B.

  • A rapid read of this piece raises the question what is it about inequality that causes diminished progress and more poverty. In the modern era progress out of poverty is terribly slow compared to the amazing progress in science and technology … but when you look at how science and technology is applied in practice it becomes pretty clear that it is used in large part to create concentrated wealth rather than distributed wealth. This does not, in my view cause poverty, but it does not optimize progress out of poverty. On the other hand their are complex financial constructs that concentrate wealth by simply removing this wealth from some other part of society. As I see it, this process for concentration of wealth has no redeeming feature.

    There is another problem and that is the concentration of data and analysis … high quality studies have very little leverage in changing anything. Listen to the 24/7 media on corporate profit, stock prices and GDP growth … and try to find reference to the key data that should be driving decisions about our society, both locally and in Washington and other centers of governmental power. The concept of Community Analytics (CA) is to get as much dataflow about decisions that impact society as there is about the wealth part of the economy. The idea is very simple … putting it in place is more challenging!

    Peter Burgess

  • great to know, thanks a lot!

  • Harry Pollard

    One is reminded of Henry George’s Law of Human Progress, where he relates progress to “Association in Equality”.

    Inasmuch as association is restricted and equality denied, so will progress fail to materialize.


  • Bill Collins

    Dear Polly,

    Thanks for this enlightening piece. It’s comforting to find research to back up my prejudices.
    I’m not quite clear though, on why lack of an income tax fosters equality. Here in CT, a painfully unequal state, we use the income tax to try to squeeze a dribble of cash out of the rich to provide social programs. I’m missing something somewhere.


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