Summary and book reviews of The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett

The Spirit Level

Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

by Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson

The Spirit Level
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2009, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Book Summary

It is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. This groundbreaking book goes an important stage beyond either of these ideas: it demonstrates that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them - the well-off as well as the poor.

It is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Large inequalities of income are likewise often regarded as divisive and corrosive.

This groundbreaking book, based on thirty years' research, goes an important stage beyond either of these ideas: it demonstrates that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them - the well-off as well as the poor. The remarkable data the book lays out and the measures it uses are like a spirit level which we can hold up to compare the conditions of different societies. The differences revealed, even between rich market democracies, are striking. Almost every modern social and environmental problem - ill-health, lack of community life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours, big prison populations - is more likely to occur in a less equal society.

The Spirit Level goes to the heart of the apparent contrast between the material success and social failings of many modern societies, but it does not simply provide a key to diagnosing our ills. It tells us how to shift the balance from self-interested 'consumerism' to a friendlier and more collaborative society. It shows a way out of the social and environmental problems which beset us and opens up a major new approach to improving the real quality of life, not just for the poor but for everyone. It is, in its conclusion, an optimistic book, which should revitalise politics and provide a new way of thinking about how we organise human communities.

Adapted from the introduction

It seems likely that environmental constraints on economic growth will dominate world politics for the foreseeable future. A pessimistic view would be that this is the beginning of the end of the most prosperous chapter in human history, and that business activity will be submerged – if not by storms and rising sea levels – then by a rising tide of government restrictions. A more optimistic response is to view the necessary constraints on economic growth as an opportunity to create a new and better post-consumerist society.

As the quality of life is so often defined in terms of material living standards and national income per person, it might seem paradoxical to claim that environmental restrictions on economic growth need not involve sacrificing our quality of life. But if instead we define the ‘quality of life’ in terms of life expectancy, happiness and well-being, then the data clearly shows that we, in the rich market ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Spirit Level will change the way you think about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, especially if you live in the United States. You will reexamine what it means to be successful, how you will seek and achieve personal satisfaction, and what you owe your fellow citizen... Despite the vagueness of the egalitarian future they envision, and the sometime less-than-persuasive data in support of their arguments, Wilson and Pickett leave the reader to grapple with a powerful and disconcerting idea   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

Full Review Members Only (721 words).

Media Reviews

Library Journal

For all readers, specialized or not, with an interest in understanding the dynamics today between economic and social conditions.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Felicitous prose and fascinating findings make this essential reading

Kirkus Reviews

A book full of dangerous ideas and useful statistics, all worthy of attention, discussion and action.

Sunday Times (UK)

This is a book with a big idea, big enough to change political thinking…In half a page [The Spirit Level] tells you more about the pain of inequality than any play or novel could.

The Guardian (UK)

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet's resources...

The Irish Times

This book communicates a relevant and powerful message for our times. It suggests that we have sought to explain our 'broken economy' on the behaviour of the rich and our 'broken society' on the behaviour of the poor – and sets out to show that the truth is that both the broken society and the broken economy resulted from the growth in inequality.

The New Statesman

The old acquisitive order has failed – even by its own standards. Unless progressive politicians are stupid as well as craven they will seize the moment to argue for the egalitarian alternative. The importance of The Spirit Level is that, together with Richard Layard's Happiness, it provides a vital part of the intellectual manifesto on which the battle for a better society can be fought.

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Beyond the Book

The Equality Trust and Happiness

Authors Wilkinson and Pickett work to enact the ideas they put forward in The Spirit Level on their Equality Trust website and its campaign for economic equality. Visit this site for blog entries and updates on their work.

Watch a video of Wilkinson and Pickett talking about the ideas in The Spirit Level:

If money doesn't buy happiness, as Wilkinson and Pickett suggest, then what is happiness and how or where do we find it?

If you'd like to seek happiness, Forbes has an article on the happiest places on earth:

"Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands rated at the top of the list, ranking first, second and third, respectively. Outside Europe, New Zealand and Canada landed at Nos. 8 and 6, respectively. The U.S. did not crack ...

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