Reviewed by Susan McClelland~

The primary thesis of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is that there is a two-way relationship between how unequal a country is and the frequency of “bad” outcomes within that country. They studied outcomes in:

  • Community relationships
  • Mental health
  • Physical health and life expectancy
  • Obesity
  • Educational performance
  • Teen births
  • Imprisonment and punishment
  • Social mobility

According to Wilkinson and Pickett, the data shows that the relatively equal Nordic societies and Japan have low rates of bad outcomes in these areas and the highly unequal societies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have comparatively high rates.

The Spirit Level was first published in 2009 and, as such, it is a little dated. In addition, while the first part of the book was interesting and compelling, after a while it starts to feel like a scholarly article that had expanded its way into a book. The authors keep repeating the same points over and over to the point where I would lose focus reading it. Which is not to say they don’t do a good job defending their primary thesis because they do — they just could have done it in fewer pages. Wilkinson and Pickett also provide many, MANY charts to support their arguments (again, after a certain point, my eyes glazed over).

Some key points from the book (very similar to Picketty):

  • After a certain point in advanced nations economic growth stops improving the average standard of living. Additional economic growth can actually reduce standards of living if economic inequalities are not curbed.
  • Climate change initiatives and economic inequality initiatives are mutually reinforcing. The common culprit is a consumerism that is untied to sustainability. If you reduce inequality social cohesion improvements and status anxiety reduces meaning people feel less pressure to overspend.
  • The only way to reduce economic inequality is through sustained political popular will resulting in gradual improvements.

Reviews of the book when it was first published were generally positive and continue to be on sites like Goodreads. However, economists seem a bit more mixed about it and there have been many articles and even an entire book published to either refute the findings or at least unable to duplicate the findings.

Ultimately, it seems that the book will speak to readers who already agree with it and probably not persuade those that don’t. In addition, there is likely more recent writings on the subject that will prove more compelling and timely. I recommend it if you really like data and graphs and getting into the weeds on these things. If not, check out this chapter by chapter summary of it:

And if you’re really in a hurry, watch this!!