In which I'm perplexed why people are so afraid of equality and compassion, and reflect on freedom and the filthy rich Westpac CEO, all because I've finally got around to reading The Spirit Level

It's to ideological politics what An Inconvenient Truth is to climate change - The Spirit Level has put the cat among the political pigeons over the past year or two, prompting books, websites and debunking from all quarters. And this week it's spreading its wings of controversy over New Zealand.

Emeritus Professor Richard Wilkinson - and epidemiologist and co-author of The Spirit Level - spoke by skype at Victoria University's policy forum titled 'Does Inequality Matter?' and will be interviewed by Guyon Espiner on Q+A this Sunday.

Wilkinson is an older academic who'd like to be more retired than he is, so what's all the fuss about? Essentially, Wilkinson and his co-author Prof. Kate Pickett pulled together peer-reviewed research from around the globe and found that when they looked at mature, developed democracies "almost all the problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies".

In other words, the more equal a society is, the happier, healthier and less stressed everyone is. And better educated. And less likely to be a victim of crime. The list goes on. (We've discussed this before on Pundit - here).

The authors reckon no other factor explains how the wealthiest societies in history are racked with anxiety, falling health and education statistics, and rising crime rates. In the past - and in developing countries - greater wealth means a greater quality of life. They argue that no longer works.

"We are the first generation to have to find new answers to the question of how we can make further improvements to the real quality of human life". What should we turn to if not to economic growth?"

Of course parties of the left have found new champions, while many (but by no means all) on the right are spitting tacks. You can see the kind of fuss caused on Kiwiblog and Not PC. Lots of debunking is being attempted.

But the ideologists protest too much. Wilkinson and Pickett actually say in the book that their conclusions don't necessarily mean big government and lots of redistribution. They don't care how you get there, they just say that the evidence suggests if you can create a more equal society, the social outcomes will be better.

The two most equal countries listed, Japan and Sweden, have taken very different paths to achieve their relatively low gap between rich and poor (still with the richest being about 4 times as rich as the poorest, so hardly equality nirvana, but way better than New Zealand with about seven times and Singapore with nine times).

Swedish governments have been quite interventionist; Japan much less so. The market in Japan has somehow kept pay rates closer together, so why the frothing Spirit Level critics are so quick to champion our type of free-market ahead of Japan's type of free-market, I don't know.

Still, the implications do seem to err on the side of the collective good over individual freedoms. Indeed, it raises prickly questions about just what freedom means and who gets to claim that word.

The new right claims that small government = freedom and in the past generation have come to own that idea and all it stands for. Just look at the Tea Party in the US right now and the political narrative on Fox.

But in times gone by the left had staked a claim for the word and idea as well, arguing that poverty is the opposite of freedom, and anything done to lift people out of poverty, to give them choices and equal opportunities to the wealthy was to fight for the cause of freedom.

In that same Fox-driven narrative, the right are realists, the left hippy-drippy idealists. But what struck me rading The Spirit Level this week was how it grappled with the grim reality of life. It looks honestly at the grimey limits of capitalism, recognising that in a world of finite resources and wealth, if some keep getting richer and richer, by definition that means others are not keeping up, or getting poorer.

And the new right mantra that the rising tide lifts all boats and that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps looks terribly naive and wildly optimistic. Even hippyish. Of course some people can, but there's no logic to assume that because the CEO of Westpac makes $5 million a year, we're all going to be better off.

The fascinating point that The Spirit Level argues is that the opposite is true. As the rich get richer and the gap with the poor grows, we're all worse off. Even the rich are sicker, sadder and less well educated in a less equal society, they say.

You might ask, but what about Rockefeller, Ford or Gates? They generated wealth for themselves and really did lift other boats by changing infrastructure in a massive way. But it's not the wealth that's crucial there, it's the disruptive technology. Many others have changed the world just as much, but died poor.

The Spirit Level talks about Ignaz Semmelweiss, who figured out that doctors washing their hands before surgery saved lives. He was mocked and committed suicide, but his idea lifted all kinds of other boats.

What I find hard to dispute is the idea that growing inequality builds barriers and diminishes community. We start to live in different worlds from one another and thus compassion becomes harder to generate.

The poor become "the other" to the rich, and the rich become "them" to the poor. The "we" is lost. It makes sense to me that we're all worse off when that happens.

In New Zealand we have gone from an egalitarian ethos to a national psyche dominated by individualist materialism. From being proud that everyone got a fair go and jack was as good as his master, we now find national pride more often in individual success stories.

It's not a simple question of "then, good"  and "now, bad". Or "individualism, bad" and collectivism ,good". But are we proud of our growing rate of inequality? Is it improving us? Creating more jobs? More health? More shared wealth? Is the Westpac CEO's success going to trickle down, really?

And are we really going to say that the changed ethos has no part to play in our low wage rates and our high debt, our crime rate and the fact we don't know our neighbours like we used to?

So the critics can pick apart the details all they want - maybe Denmark is an exception to the rule or the graph changes if you add or subtract a country. I'm just not sure what they're so scared of. Losing their wealth and power? Sacrificing some freedom over their money to give someone else some freedom? The "undeserving" being treated as well as they are?

Why get so wound up about others being equal with them (because these folk are always doing quite nicely, thanks very much)? I really don't get it.

I have questions about some of the claims made in the book, which we'll explore on Q+A, but I look at its central thesis that equality is good for us and, well, that seems like a no-brainer.

Check out Wilkinson for yourself on Sunday morning, 9am on One.

Comments (29)

by John Thomson on November 20, 2010
John Thomson

Mose Allison expressed these sentiments rather well in his song "I Don't Worry About a Thing (Cause I Know Nothing's Gonna Be Alright)" thus - "Don't spend your time trying to be a big winner/ 'Cause while you're getting fat, someone else is getting thinner"

by Judy on November 20, 2010

The rich and the powerful believe that insecurity and inequality makes for a less empowered divided workforce.  It also brings into play the old equation.

'the boss kicks the man, the man kicks the woman, the woman kicks the kids, and the kids kick the dog who chases the cat.'

The upside is the cat which gets really angry when it is chased by the dog, and gets its claws out.

So, the more power that stays with the few, the less power to strike back from the decimated unions and the politically and gender-divided individuals.

The few are frankly terrified of the unified power of the nine tails of the 'cat' - health, welfare, education, equality, communication, cheap transport, a living wage, S59 repeal, water, food.

by DeepRed on November 20, 2010

And it's worth noting the author of the "Spirit Level Delusion", Christopher Snowdon, is a researcher for the Democracy Institute, which has official links with the Cato, Fraser, and Competitive Enterprise Institutes. Not unlike the CIS think tank in our neck of the woods.

One of the DI's books which criticised anti-smoking measures just happened to be written by a twice-struck-off academic and financed by Big Tobacco (which said academic later worked for as a yes-man.)

by stuart munro on November 21, 2010
stuart munro

There is moreover plenty of evidence that directly supports The Spirit Level's thesis, from the Roseto study cited in Gladwell's Outliers to Putnam's work on declining social participation. Fact is, the market led social construct is dystopian, ineffective as a growth strategy, and environmentally unsound. The fact that it has become the dominant discourse of our age is a damning inditement of what presently passes for civic engagement. 

by Frank Macskasy on November 21, 2010
Frank Macskasy

Well thought out and elegantly presented, Tim.


Especially referencing the new creed of individualiasm which has taken hold in our society, and which affects almost every nook and cranny of our community.


The argument against addressking our worsening booze-culture, for example, is that tougher restrictions "penalises innocent drinkers". That presupposes that tougher restrictions would impact on "innocent drinkers" instead of actually making it safer to wander through downtown Wellington or Nelson and not face the prospect of violence.


The recent Hobbit debacle is another cawe in point; one person emailed me stating he was a strong pro-union support and rattled off the entertainment unions he was proudly a member of.


Then he slammed Actors Equity for rocking the boat and jeopadising his job prospects.  Which begs the question if he understands what the word "union" actually means.


The creed of Individualism in the end is a futile dogma. Humans, like their simian cousins are first and foremost social creatures. We rely on each other for almost every facet of our existance. This includes a stable society.


Laws by themselves do not create a stable society. There has to be social cohesion and a willingness to put community above individual "rights".


It's ironic that right wingers who worship at the foot of the god of individualism enjoy the fruits of community. They remind me of the marxist-lenists who scathing derided capitalism in the West as an enemy of the workers and destined for the "dustbin of history" - all the while ensuring that they had the latest TVs, video players, clothing, cars, and other consumer goods imported from the West.


by Mark Wilson on November 21, 2010
Mark Wilson

Tim, it is not and has never been about stopping others having what the right have.

What the right is worried about is that whenever the left start talking about wealth redistribution they really mean use of force to make the world conform to their vision. The only way we can have a society that would met the Green Party's need to tell others how to live is by force. Last century the left killed a 100 million or so on the basis they knew better than the rest of us. Isn't that enough deaths for you?

We have had a massive redistribution of wealth in this country since ther 50s and all it has achieved is huge numbers of sad entrenched welfare dependents.

The elephant in the room that the left, including yourself, have no choice but to ignore is that the societies that you acclaim are not that way because of wealth distribution but because they are basically mono cultural societies. The countries with the social problems are multicultural. All the Scandinavian countries and Japan have raciest immigration policies. The first world countries with the major social problems don't.

Lets not confuse racism with social equality. 


by Andin on November 21, 2010

"All the Scandinavian countries and Japan have raciest immigration policies."

Yeah Immigration is a raciest bitch!

Mr Watkin, you sir are on a roll.

by Mark Wilson on November 21, 2010
Mark Wilson

Mock all you want but I notice that you can't refute the truth - monocultural societies have more social equality than  multicultural. Talk about an inconvenient truth! I love it when the left won't confront reality.


by Andin on November 21, 2010

"monocultural societies have more social equality than  multicultural."

I think you should really have close look at what you are saying here. You think you have found a flaw in the argument. But I would argue it reinforces what the Wilkinson says.

And please lets leave talk of elephants out of it. I've got a cupboard full over here. And Im not scared to use them.

by stuart munro on November 21, 2010
stuart munro

@ Mark,

Lots of things mixed together here. Certainly the countries that enabled large scale immigration from radically different cultures have not done so without problems. But it's unpredictable. In New Zealand, the Somali refugee effort was found to be a comparatively poor match with our society, whereas the Tampa refugees assimilated or succeeded rapidly.

But you need to get over your nutty anti-left propaganda. Stalin killed a lot of people because he was a tyrant, not because he was a good Marxist. But he did so as a member of a new, wealthy, privileged, military backed elite. In short, he was a right winger, if it is possible to ascribe wings to kleptocracies and related despotic regimes.

by Rab McDowell on November 21, 2010
Rab McDowell

The thing about "The Spirit Level" is that we want it to be true. Its thesis is one that we intuitively feel is right and logical. It fits they way we perceive the world should work. That does not necessarily guarantee its truth.
We tend to be less questioning of its conclusions than we would of other treatises because of its feel of “rightness”. We should, in all probability, be more, not less, sceptical so as to test its conclusions despite our biases.
“The Spirit Level Delusion” is written by someone with biases that are obvious, Christopher Snowden, because of his biases and associations will be less inclined to accept the thesis of the original book than most of us. That does not mean that he is wrong or that his criticisms have no foundation. What he does do is raise sufficient questions about the book, the research and how open minded the writers were before they selected their research to make us reconsider whether we can fully accept Wilkinson’s’ and Pickett’s work without further corroboration.
Much and all as I am uncomfortable with the widening disparity between executive and average salaries, I do not think “The Spirit Level” is sufficiently robust to be an authoritive reference on the causes and implications of the trend.

by Tim Watkin on November 21, 2010
Tim Watkin

From what little I know of Wilkinson and Pickett, Robert, they are robust and highly regarded researchers, at the top of their field long before they wrote this book. That may not make them right on this argument, but means they're not easily dismissed regardless of their conclusions.

You're right about keeping an open mind, but unless you're a world-renowned health researcher, I'd be wary of taking them on on grounds of their robustness.

Mark, I'm curious too about the role immigration plays in this. That point leapt out to me as well. However I'd pause before you use it as the needle to pop this balloon, as you may end up popping a few of your own. I wonder how immigration in Singapore compares to Sweden, yet their equality levels are very different. Go back a century or two in America – or in the latest cycle, just a generation of two  and you'll find a country with lots of immigration, prosperity and equality.

France too has retained more equality than us with much more intense immigration. It can't explain the findings away that easily.

Yet it remains a factor I have more questions about, as does colonisation... as does climate... Perhaps even religion.

I think you're frankly nuts comparing redistribution with Stalinism. Mixed economies with progressive, redistributive tax systems have been the engine room of the world's economic growth for decades, so you're simply wrong to say redistribution is only achieved by force and Green parties, to imply that it's economically harmful and to suggest that it killed millions.

That's as ridiculous as comparing Key to Mussolini.

And the comment that redistribution since the '50s has caused welfare dependency is that sort that makes my head explode, because it's so obviously factually inaccurate. You just blend together 50 years worth of trends and counter-trends, including Rogernomics, to suit your argument.

We began redistributing in NZ in the 1800s... grew that in the 1930s... and maintained it under National in the 1950s. And you know what? The old story about the Employment Minister of the day knowing those on the dole by name ain't that far off the mark. A heavily redistributive system in the '50s and '60s gave us our most prosperous generation.

Say what you want about the war and being Britain's farm and more, but don't waste time pretending redistribution per se has been bad for our economy.

by Tim Watkin on November 21, 2010
Tim Watkin

Oh, and sorry we didn't have the good professor on Q+A this morning. We were gutted to lose him, but I'm sure you understand that the trapped miners rather took over and changed everything.

by Tim Watkin on November 21, 2010
Tim Watkin

We'll be sure to try to get Wilkinson on another time. He's amenable, so it's just a matter of finding a slot.

by Mark Wilson on November 22, 2010
Mark Wilson

Tim, my point is that there are so many possible variables (chaos theory comes to mind here) that willy boy should be ashamed of himself.

This is why (don't tell Andrew) all academics should have to spend time in the real world on a regular basis so they avoid believing their own drivel. They have such a soft life they can't see how silly they are at times.

Still nothing has been put forward that has a stronger chance of being right than monoculturalism vs multiculturalism. It would seem that the more racist your immigration policy is the more equality you have.     

by Tim Watkin on November 22, 2010
Tim Watkin

Still, Mark, America's success has been built on the opposite. It took in all the poor, tired and huddled masses and, while it's terribly unequal now, has had long periods of equality.

And of course the other explanation is that Wilkinson and Pickett could be right.

by Andin on November 22, 2010

"all academics should have to spend time in the real world on a regular basis so they avoid believing their own drivel. They have such a soft life they can't see how silly they are at times."

Of course the converse could also be true. That those in the real world have become so dumbed down, they don't know their arse from a hole in the ground.

by Andrew Geddis on November 22, 2010
Andrew Geddis

"This is why (don't tell Andrew) all academics should have to spend time in the real world on a regular basis so they avoid believing their own drivel. They have such a soft life they can't see how silly they are at times."

How post-modern of you, Mark! Truth is frame dependent. Reality flows from an individual's social situation. Empirical facts depend upon how you get the money to pay your power bills.

Next you'll be saying that the application of gravity differs between those on the public teat and the wealth creators who earn it for themselves. Which sounds just like the sort of silly thing you'd hear in a Waikato University humanities course ... your past coming back to haunt you, is it Mark?

by Mark Wilson on November 22, 2010
Mark Wilson

Andrew I have way more self respect than to have been to cow town university - their students are so dumb they don't realize what a hopeless Uni it is!!!!!! Ranked 316th in the world and dropping like a stone.

"Truth is frame dependent. Reality flows from an individual's social situation. Empirical facts depend upon how you get the money to pay your power bills."

Now theres something we can agree on!

by stuart munro on November 22, 2010
stuart munro

America's success has been built on the opposite. It took in all the poor, tired and huddled masses and, while it's terribly unequal now, has had long periods of equality.

It seems a crime to interfere with such optimism, but this liberality did not extend to blacks or native Americans. In the 19th century, it did not extend to the Irish, and in the early twentieth century (before both wars), German schools in the US closed or were burned down. It is a fine literary line

"...give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,"

But reflective more of the poet's hope than any real state of affairs. Upton Sinclair did not write The Jungle to reform the US meat industry, but to address the suffering of poor predominantly migrant workers.
He famously said that he aimed at his country's heart, and hit its stomach.

by DeepRed on November 22, 2010

"but this liberality did not extend to blacks or native Americans. In the 19th century, it did not extend to the Irish, and in the early twentieth century (before both wars), German schools in the US closed or were burned down. It is a fine literary line"

And not to mention the doors were slammed shut to even Mediterraneans and Slavs in the 1920s.

Stuart brings up a key point. Professor John Ogbu's theory of 'voluntary minorities' and 'involuntary minorities' comes to mind.

by Tim Watkin on November 23, 2010
Tim Watkin

Stuart, fair point on the slavery. But while there were all kinds of prejudices amidst those masses, the likes of Alex de Tocqueville wrote in admiration about its stark – even maddening – equality.

Undermining Mark's view of things, people like Sinclair wrote about inequality when it sprung up – as did Steinbeck and others, of course – and it was often challenged. Evidence that wealth creation and redistribution, unions and the like can go hand in hand and you don't need an ultra free-market to prosper.

by Ewan Morris on November 23, 2010
Ewan Morris

Tim - I'm sure you don't want this discussion to get derailed into a discussion of American history, but I do think you're stretching it when you say that America had long periods of equality in its past. Others have already made the very obvious point that a significant proportion of the population was enslaved and then deprived of its civil rights for much of America's history. De Tocqueville's observations were surely about equality of opportunity, not of outcomes (which is what the Spirit Level hypothesis is about), while it seems somewhat perverse to use Sinclair's and Steinbeck's observations on the deep inequalities in American society as evidence that the US was engaged in redistribution and was not following "ultra free-market" policies.

But returning to the issue of immigration and ethnic homogeneity and its relationship to inequality - as with so much in this debate, the problem is identifying the chain of causation, but here is my hypothesis. More ethnically homogeneous states find it easier to maintain a consensus around policies that maintain relative equality. This is perhaps particularly obvious when those policies depend on redistribution (the Scandinavian model) as opposed to not paying people vastly different amounts in the first place (the Japanese model). It's easier to maintain a consensus around a generous welfare state if people feel that the benefits are going to "us", rather than "them" ("them" being whatever minority groups are particularly looked down on in the society in question). This interpretation is supported anecdotally by my conversations with an Australian friend who lives in Denmark - I get the impression that a certain inward-looking sense of Danishness goes hand in hand with support for the welfare state and suspicion of foreigners.

Having said all of that, it's also worth pointing out that the Scandinavian countries have significant numbers of refugees and other migrants (anyone who has read Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy may have noticed the number of characters who are not ethnically Swedish or have "non-Swedish" names) as well as indigenous Sami minorities. Japan also has significant minorities of indigenous Ainu, Koreans, Burakumin ("low caste" people) and others - it's just that the Japanese have traditionally denied the existence of such minorities.

by stuart munro on November 23, 2010
stuart munro

I think it's important not to gloss over the effect of cultures or castes in societies, because it leads to the design of unsound policies. It may be an issue Andrew could address better, but the fact is that law does not strike very deep within societies, so that as far as protecting equity, much less social equity, a social group largely relies on informal sanctions or customs. Social groups not protected by such devices are rapidily impoverished and marginalised.

The US example might be the historical Spanish landowners of California, dispossessed not by warfare but some kind of incremental displacement.

I do not think that the cultural problems that immigration is wont to create are to be resolved simply by borrowing the cosmopolitan presumptions of a more successful country like Sweden. The more equal society, the moderately prosperous economy, and the social safety net also act to reduce the extent to which different cultures compete destructively. Lacking these things a more receptive stance on migration might still fail.

In former times, especially in smaller communities, a church met part of the need for facilitating local interaction and group identity. Now that western societies have largely abandoned the institution, there is a gap in the formation of communties, that facebook or TV does not really fill. I'm sure in Elizabethan times the theatre was significant in the role.

by DeepRed on November 25, 2010
And Singapore addressed the multiculturalism issue by conscripting everyone and requiring a med cert to buy chewing gum. In the words of founding father Lee Kuan Yew, "if Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one." Somehow, not many who think we should imitate Singapore cite that.
by Mark Wilson on November 26, 2010
Mark Wilson

Ewan Morris is alterring the tone of the blog by talking sense so no doubt he will be redacted any minute.

"More ethnically homogeneous states find it easier to maintain a consensus around policies that maintain relative equality."

You cannot place NZ in the same wealth gap arena as the monocultural countires without doing away with multiculturalism. If you take out the Maori and PI portion of the population we rocket up the list.

Isn't reality a bitch!  

by DeepRed on November 26, 2010

Mark W: "You cannot place NZ in the same wealth gap arena as the monocultural countires without doing away with multiculturalism. If you take out the Maori and PI portion of the population we rocket up the list."

It worked for South Africa and the American South - but only up to a point.

by Tim Watkin on December 03, 2010
Tim Watkin

The persecution complex doesn't become you Mark. I raised the point about immigration in the original post, so Ewan's considered comments are not tangental or in anyway out of line.

I haven't read de Tocqueville in enough detail to know whether he focussed on opportunity or outcome, but I suspect the two were much closer in the America of the time. What I don't buy is this insistence that slavery undermines an argument that America's economic success is built in large part on redistribution.

The early states were so separate that slavery in the South can hardly be responsible for the growth of New York, Chicago and as the country moved west. As an example, NY grew on the back of the Erie Canal (a government project), and that story of government-led investment and taxation goes on. Look at the presidencies of FDR, Eisenhower, for example.

Point is, the time of highest redistribution seem to match the times of highest equality, the middle of the 20th century being the most obvious case in point.

by HIlary Stace on July 31, 2011
HIlary Stace

Tim, last November you said you would try and get the Spirit Level authors on the programme following that earlier postponement. Has this happened yet? If not it would be very relevant to talk to them particularly considering rich-lister Barry Coleman's comments this week dismissing the gap between rich and poor as a myth.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.