I recently read the intriguing book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate E. Pickett. The book gave me new insights about quality of life, consumerism, trust and equality – or the lack of it.
Why some countries differ in their levels of trust, mental health, physical well-being, educational performances, teenage births, violence and imprisonment? One would argue that these differences would be explained by the wealth of that country – most developed countries with higher national income per person have it generally better in all of these issues. However, when rich, developed countries are compared to each other, the national income per person is a factor unrelated to these differences. Problems are anything from three times to ten times more common in some countries. Wilkinson and Pickett describe in their book The Spirit Level that not only are these issues interrelated, but also that they are affected by one common factor – the level of a society’s equality.
Quality of life is not infinitely increased by economic growth. This is easy to notice in one’s own life: a pay raise will have a huge initial effect in improving one’s quality of life but will have diminishing effects after a certain point. Switching from living in an university dorm to an apartment has a bigger thrill than moving from an apartment to another slightly fancier apartment. The same is true in a national scale: after a certain point (specifically around 25,000 dollars per person), economic growth ceases to affect the general quality of life. Already in many developing countries the curve has leveled out, showing diminishing returns. Now, improvements e.g. in the population’s health are no longer related to average living standards. According to Wilkinson and Pickett, we are standing on the edge of an unknown territory. We are the first generation that has to answer the question: If not with economic growth, how can we improve the quality of human life?
Wilkinson and Pickett argue, through research-based evidence, that the quality of human life is improved by reducing inequality. They go on to prove this argument by showing the relatedness of income equality and various different national issues (e.g. mental health, violence rates). The countries with the highest income inequality are mostly showing higher rates of e.g. mental health problems, violence, teenage births and lower levels of trust and educational performance. Income inequality is a common root affecting all of these different issues. Therefore, by reducing inequality a country can have significant improvements in the quality of human life.
But how can inequality affect countries’ various social problems? “We are affected very differently by the income differences within our society than by the differences in average income between one rich society to another.” What this means is, that rising inequality has profound, multifaceted effects in the society, which result in different kinds of social problems. Two of the biggest effects of income inequality are the rise of anxiety and narcistic self-esteem. We have an inert need for belonging and feeling valued, which result in craving for feedback. How others perceive us matters, or more specifically how we believe others to see us matters. Social status is a way of making social comparisons and thus, creates a social evaluative threat. If we see our status to be lower in the social scale, we may also feel less valued and not as able as the ones above us. Social status gives the strongest message of superiority and inferiority. Thus, inequality creates not only status competition but also social anxiety, which result in various social problems from drug use and violence to decreased levels of trust.
These interrelated effects of inequality were something I had not thought of before. This could be due to the fact that I have always lived in a country known for its equality. I was surprised how tightly trust and equality are interwoven together in creating co-operative and cohesive communities. In Finland it is not unusual for young children to commute to school by themselves or for cafés to leave their blankets on the patios. I trust my fellow students, when I leave my computer in the study area while I go for a break. These are things I take for granted living in Finland. However, inequality destroys the togetherness of a society by producing clearer divisions within it. This creates an us-them mentality, which decreases our ability to empathize with individuals belonging to the out-groups.
This increase of vulnerability caused by social evaluative threat also feeds into consumerism. Oliver James calls it the affluenza virus. Inequality makes people emphasize values that make us look better in the eyes of others. Acquiring material and money are good way of showing how up we are on the social status ladder. Not only are these values making us vulnerable for mental health issues, they are also creating more power for needless consumption. This is why “our need to consume is a reflection of how deeply social we are”. Surprisingly important factor in consumerism is trust: the more we are able to trust in each other, the more we are involved with the community. The more we are involved, the more we have time to truly connect with others. These deep connections lessen our burden to create impressions through consuming. For me, this was a big revelation.
The biggest take-away for me was the fact that increasing equality is not just for the benefit of a smaller proportion of the population (e.g. the poor). An equal society is beneficial for everyone. This is poignantly illustrated by the death rates in Sweden compared against the rates in England and Wales. The death rates in the lower classes of society in a more equal Sweden were lower than the death rates in the highest classes in England and Wales. Therefore, by decreasing inequality the death rates, in both the lower and higher classes, can be reduced. Additionally, I was thrilled to learn, that the enhancing participatory management methods are one way of increasing equality in a given society.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Spirit Level. It gave me a new perspective to social problems. Before I was not sure if our high tax rates really are that necessary but given the wide-range of benefits it gives to the society’s well-being (and therefore my own) I would be even willing to make them even higher.