The Spirit Level is a non-fiction book that examines the prevalence of what we might think of as social problems in different countries (drug use, violence, obesity, poor educational performance, crime etc.). Wilkinson and Pickett argue that what matters is not how affluent a country is on average, but rather the level of inequality in the country. All Western nations have reached a point where economic development has led to a comfortable standard of living, but the richest countries are not the happiest, or the ones with fewest social ills. In fact, health and social problems are instead highly related to the difference in income between the top twenty and lowest twenty percent in that country, with richer countries like the USA and UK doing poorly compared to countries such as Japan and the Scandinavian nations.
This may all sound like common sense, but what Wilkinson and Pickett do in The Spirit Level is provide overwhelming evidence that inequality is damaging for all members of society, not just those at the bottom. Each chapter examines a different societal problem and time and time again, we see that inequality is strongly related to it. Even things like the amount of trust you have in your community, your chances of developing a mental illness, the prevalence of chronic diseases and the rate of teenage pregnancies are highly correlated. And as Wilkinson and Pickett explained how the link between inequality and each 'problem' might work, the more I found myself nodding my head along with the book. It just makes sense that the healthier societies are the ones where all members of society feel valued and like they have something to contribute. Crucially, the authors show that inequality is damaging for the rich as well as the poor.
The sections dealing with the relationship between inequality and the different health and social problems were truly fascinating, and left me with lots to think about. However, the book then moves on to discussing ways that inequality can be combated by ordinary members of the public, and here I felt it started to lose some steam. I do agree with lots of their suggestions, especially employees having a stake/shares/voice in the company they work for, but this part of the book felt a bit meandering and at times, a little preachy, compared with the fast paced, factual arguments of the rest of the text.
On the whole, The Spirit Level is a truly thought provoking book that seeks to provide an answer to the question of why the richest countries aren't necessarily the happiest in the world. It's thoroughly researched, fascinating to read and left me with lots to think about. Recommended for anyone interested in society or politics.
Source: Personal Copy
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Penguin Books, 2010
Score: 4 out of 5