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Is equality better for everyone?

The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone is a book that sets out some sobering facts about the damage done to people by living in unequal societies, such as the USA, UK and Portugal, compared with more equal places like Japan and Scandinavia.

The amazing thing is that this is true for even the richest people, i.e. the well-being of the (very) rich in unequal societies is less than that of the rich (but not as rich) in more equal countries.

‘Well-being’ covers things like: mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy, violence, interpersonal trust, self-esteem, life expectancy, literacy and much more.

The reasons are complex but rooted in the deep but conflicting human needs for status and social integration. We measure our self-worth against other people and so want to do better than them. This is stoked up by marketing and media that are designed to set aspirations artificially high, and make us feel inadequate unless we have the latest material goods.

The book talks about how greater equality can be achieved. In countries such as Sweden it is mainly by using fiscal policy (e.g. taxes) whereas in Japan incomes and wealth are more evenly shared to start with.

At K&H we are heavily involved with the Employee Ownership Association and it is interesting that the book focuses on this model as a way to achieve a fairer sharing of wealth. Technology is also likely to provide a levelling off of how resources are shared, and these are very positive signs for the future.

The prizes for more equality are well worth aspiring to. For example in the UK we would have 75% fewer murders and seven weeks more holiday every year if we could get to the position of the more equal societies.

Do you agree with this book, and do you think it should influence our government’s fiscal policy?

To see all the books I have read and recommended over the last few years, see my reading list on my LinkedIn pages.

4 Responses to “Is equality better for everyone?”

  1. Andrew Gray says:

    Thanks for your comments Andy. I should have stressed that the book is based on peer-reviewed, independent scientific research and not just someone’s opinion (apparently anyway).I agree we need to aspire, but not necessarily for material wealth (at least once you pass the point of having physiological needs satisfied, so the research states). The examples you give are quite rightly non-financial. Eastern Europe is a great example of how to mis-apply these principles- imposing controls and limiting the freedom of individuals to achieve social goals never works it seems.

  2. Andrew Scott says:

    Very interesting point of view, I have not read the book so do not know the full point the book is making. Personally I think man needs to aspire. Without this would we have discovered the new world,climbed Everest, walked on the moon? I wonder how the populations of Eastern Europe feel now with a capitalist economy compared with previous controlled economies pre glasnost.

  3. Tony Armstrong says:

    This is clearly a fascinating book and one I may well be inclined to read. However, a couple of points I feel are worth making. It has been found that trust (a component of ‘wellbeing’ as you mention) is higher is societies that are more homogeneous. This is certainly true of Japan which has not experienced the mass immigration of countries such as the UK and USA. With lower levels of trust there is bound to be a greater lack of wellbeing.
    Concerning whether this quest for wellbeing should drive fiscal policy, it would be necessary to understand the extent that an even greater degree of re-distributive fiscal policy than exists at present could overcome the negative effects of the increasingly un-homogeneous nature of our society (the elephant that the EU aided by Gordon Brown enthusiastically welcomed into the room).
    Lastly, data published by the State Department in the USA shows that the total tax take (in $) and the share of tax paid by the richest quartile increased when rates were lowered under two separate administrations. Food for thought.

  4. Andrew Gray says:

    I have just been looking at a website inspired by this book: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk. This has videos of the authors explaining much of the content of the book, with eveidence and charts to back it up.

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