It's Not Just Income Inequality That Counts: Nonmaterial Redistribution Is a Key Element in Successful Societies

By Milner, Henry | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

It's Not Just Income Inequality That Counts: Nonmaterial Redistribution Is a Key Element in Successful Societies


Milner, Henry, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


Anyone concerned with equality and poverty has likely heard of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level. The first edition came out in 2009, with a second edition published at the end of 2010 by Penguin with the subtitle Why Equality is Better for Everyone. The authors have responded at length to criticisms of their analysis on the Equality Trust website and in the postscript to the second edition, and have made their graphs available online. As of September 2012, the book had sold more than 150,000 copies in English and was available in 23 foreign editions.

Despite efforts by conservative critics to discredit their data, on the whole their claims stand up. When it comes to physical and mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, mobility, trust, violence, teenage pregnancy and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries than in more equal ones. Figure 1 sums up their findings.

We should not be surprised by these findings since the more egalitarian countries regularly come out on top in various cross-national indicators. For example, the 2013 edition of the UN's World Happiness Report ranks the more egalitarian countries at the top: among 156 countries, Denmark is first, Norway second, the Netherlands third, Sweden fifth, and Finland seventh as the best places to live in the world. (1)

In this sense the book makes an important contribution, drawing attention to the relationship between equality and well-being, bringing together a variety of useful facts and figures in one place. The authors have, by and large, effectively defended their claims, certainly well enough to satisfy readers favouring or at least open to greater equality. They have not, however, won over their critics. More significantly, there is little sign that they have won over policymakers in their own country, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere.

To convince those whose opinions count, correlations between outcomes must be accompanied by sufficiently persuasive explanations, explanations that take into account the effects of specific policy choices. The Spirit Level makes no real attempt to put forward such explanations, and this, I contend, is its intrinsic weakness.

Policy choices and outcomes

It is perhaps unfair to ask authors not trained in the social sciences to consider the work of social scientists. Yet it is their failure to consider what social sciences contribute that underlies both the book's popularity and its negligible influence on policymakers. The statistical correlations at the aggregate level between equality and various positive indicators are partly explained by the simple fact that, when there are fewer poor people, there are fewer unhappy, unhealthy, uninformed, violent and abused people. Beyond that, Wilkinson and Pickett's argument can be reduced to the broad assertion that greater inequality induces greater stress, which affects not only the poor but those afraid of being poor, or of being poorer than their neighbours.

Their explanations are usually insufficient; they conceal significant policy-related factors underlying the statistical correlations. For example, the authors explain why average working hours are lower in more equal societies by noting that the pressure to consume is greater in more unequal societies. Nothing about laws setting out maximum working hours, vacations, parental leave, sabbaticals and the like. To be able to include this dimension, one must have some familiarity with the relevant social science literature, which points us first toward conducive institutions, and then toward the cultural context of these institutions. In particular, it entails some knowledge of the societies with the lowest levels of inequality that drive the correlations: the Nordic countries and Japan.

In presenting their data, Wilkinson and Pickett stress a "really important implication ... [that] how a society becomes more unequal is less important than whether or not it actually does so. …

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