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(en) Irish Anarchist Review #2 - Science for a Fair Society - The Spirit Level: Why more equal societ ies almost always do better - Book Review by GAVIN GLEASON

Date Sun, 07 Nov 2010 08:58:30 +0200

We all want a better world, but is it possible? The recently published The Spirit Level joins a growing body of evidence for the viability of a better world. ---- Since very early times, humans have wondered about how best to live together. What we now call political philosophy began millenia ago. There have been many schools of political philosophy, many of which have given tacit support and justification to the present social order. This type have always been popular with rulers, the nobility and the rich and so have enjoyed a great deal of financial, and even legal support. ---- However, there are also those who have sought to question whether the status quo is indeed the best manner in which humans might live together. In 300 CE Bao Jingyan wrote a treatise entitled “Neither Lord Nor Subject” [1].

“As soon as the relationship between lord and
subject is established, hearts become daily
more filled with evil designs, until the man-
acled criminals sullenly doing forced labour
in the mud and the dust are full of mutinous
thoughts, the Sovereign trembles with anxious
fear in his ancestral temple, and the people
simmer with revolt in the midst of their poverty
and distress; and to try to stop them revolting
by means of rules and regulations, or control
them by means of penalties and punishments,
is like trying to dam a river in full flood with
a handful of earth, or keeping the torrents of
water back with one finger.”

This idea that our social structure itself is
responsible for many of the conflicts that we
experience has enjoyed resurgence periodically
throughout history. Indeed, people are still
investigating these questions.

Science has provided us with powerful tools
which allow us to systematically investigate
phenomena in the natural world. Psychology
and Sociology have turned these tools towards
the investigation of ourselves and how we
relate to each other. We are now in a better
position to investigate these question than at
any time in history.


Equality has been an important feature of
political thought in Europe since the Enlighten-
ment period and gained widespread popularity
during and after the French revolution.

The republican revolutions of Europe removed
the greater portion of the systems of nobility
and privilege that separate people into various
distinct legal classes. Feudalism is largely a
thing of the past, and has been replaced with
legal equality. Over the course of the 20th
century, legal equality has been extended to
include nearly everyone (though citizenship is
still restricted on grounds of foreign birth or
sometimes even more restrictive rules about

However, there are still large material inequali-
ties. In fact, income and wealth inequality in
the US and UK has been on the rise for the last
three decades.

But why should we care? Is inequality some-
thing we should worry about, or is it a good
thing? Brian Griffiths, former adviser to
Margaret Thatcher and an adviser for Goldman
Sachs, opined at a panel discussion in 2009
that, “We have to tolerate the inequality as a
way to achieve greater prosperity and opportu-
nity for all”. [2]

This is a bold thesis, and one which does not
stand up to scrutiny. Recently, Richard Wilkin-
son and Kate Pickett have gained some notori-
ety for their book, The Spirit Level[3] detailing
their investigations into the impact of inequal-

Their findings come as a fairly staggering indictment
of the above statement; increasing equality actually
leads to huge global benefits. These benefits are so
widespread that even some of the richest people in
society gain from the increase in equality.

Based on the strength of the correlations between
equality and improvement in social welfare a de-
crease of inequality by half in the UK would lead to a
huge list of improvements:
- Murder rates would halve
- Mental illness would reduce by two thirds
- Obesity would halve
- Imprisonment would reduce by 80%
- Teen births would reduce by 80%
- Levels of trust would increase by 85%

Although the study has been attacked on the basis
that it has derived the correlations by looking at dif-
ferent European countries with different social struc-
tures, comparing apples and oranges , the results
are so robust that extending the study to look at the
various US states in terms of the economic inequality
by state showed essentially the same features. It is
rare that statistical studies on the scale of society are
re-targeted to a new data set this way and retain so
much predictive power.


It has been known since the time of the Athenian
city-state that large accumulations of wealth can
have corrosive effects on democracy. Indeed this
underlies the reasoning behind having a system of
lots for many official positions, so as to avoid the
influence that would-be oligarchs could have on the
society [4].

The ever increasing inequality in the UK and the US
has led to an erosion of what democratic principles
existed. Thomas Ferguson undertook to study the
impact of money on elections in the US in his book
“Golden Rule” [5]. In his investigations he found
that in 9 out of 10 US elections, the outcome
could be predicted by campaign spending.

Of course the impact of campaign contributions
would be much less of a problem in a system in
which individuals were much closer to material
equality. The extraordinary inequality present in
the US and UK means that a very few people will
have tremendous influence on who gets elected.

While this means that those politicians who are
most favourable to moneyed interests are much
more likely to be elected, it does not necessarily
prove that the money turns into policy decisions.
Figuerdo Edwards’ investigation into this ques-
tion showed a very strong correlation between
money and policy decision. The study evaluates
regulation with regards to telecommunications
companies [6]. In his research he found a strong
correlation between campaign contributions by
telecom companies and favourable policy deci-
sions made in proportion to the contributions

Democracy becomes little more than a farce
when policy is driven by the tyranny of the dollar
and the only function of elections is to provide a
veneer of respectability. A properly functioning
democracy requires a substantially more even
distribution of resources.


Those who claim the need for inequality often
claim that without the material incentives given
by unbounded income possibility, people would
cease working harder when they reached the top.
In addition those who are at the very bottom
wouldn’t bother working at all if they weren’t in
permanent threat of poverty.

This wisdom is indeed widely accepted, but does
it stand up to systematic investigation? Dan Pink
wrote a popular survey of literature on the sub-
ject of motivation entitled Drive [7]. He shows
that a large body of research over the course of
many decades has shown that material incentives
often do not result in improvements in perfor-
mance. Indeed, in a large number of cases they
have the opposite effect.

The tendency for an outside incentive to reduce
the capacity to solve a problem is known as the
overjustification effect. Perhaps the earliest
demonstration of the effect was with children in
the 3-5 year old range who were offered a ribbon
for drawing with felt-tipped pens. A second group
was given an unexpected reward of a ribbon. A
third group was a control group and was given no
reward. Later, in a free-play setting the children
who had been given a reward for the pens were
less likely to play with the pens further [8]. The
most widely accepted conclusion is that expected
rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.

Sam Glucksberg performed a similar experiment
testing the ability to solve cognitive tasks on
adults with monetary incentives. He found that,
again, the extrinsic rewards actually diminish the
capacity to solve the problem. Since that time the
effect has become very well established [7].

So what serves as intrinsic motivation? As it
turns out non-tangible rewards, such as verbal
praise, do not appear to undermine intrinsic moti-
vation, but can act to reinforce it [9].

If monetary incentives do not increase the ability
to solve complicated problems then the question
must be asked: why is that they we are paying
huge amounts of money to CEOs, bankers and
others who are supposed to be dealing with the
complex problems of organising society?


The connection between material wealth and well
being has been the subject of argument for a
long time. It has often been claimed that mate-
rial wealth does not lead to happiness.

Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton performed a
study of 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Health-
ways Well-Being Index [10]. Their finding was
that, indeed money does improve self reported
emotional well being up to an annual income of
approximately $75,000.

Not only is inequality depriving a substantial
number of people of emotional well-being, it is
also of no benefit to the rich who horde it. In
2004 the mean income in the US was $60,528
[11], this is about 40% larger than the median
income [12]. A 40% increase in income to most
Americans would, according to this study, lead
to a very substantial improvement in emotional
well-being. This is without even accounting for
the fact that there are even greater disparities in
wealth than there are in income.


Many of these ideas have been folklore among
socialists for over a century. Of course, folklore
is not a sufficient basis for a fair and egalitarian
society. However, it appears that the intuition
behind this folklore stands up to scientific scru-
tiny, while the widely expressed myths of the
usefulness of inequality do not. None of these
investigations will ensure that we can construct a
society that is at once focused on improving the
conditions of humanity and based on a very real-
ist, scientific and rational approach to the prob-
lems of humanity. However, they do lend power-
ful evidence that such a world is possible.

Title: The Spirit Level: Why more equal societ ies almost always do better
ISBN: 9780141921150
Publisher: Allen Lane
Available online from
Cost £9.99

[1] Anarchism: a documentary history of libertarian ideas, volume one,
From anarchy to anarchism (300-1939) edited by Robert Graham.
KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library (Kate Sharpley Library) (46-
47). July 2006.
[2] Caroline Binham, “Goldman Sachs’s Griffiths Says
Inequality Helps All”. Bloomberg, October 21, 2009.
[3] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies
Almost Always Do Better. London, Allen Lane, 5 March 2009
[4] The Democratic Experiment, Paul Cartledge
[5] Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Politics. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (June 15, 1995)
[6] de Figueiredo, Rui J.P. Jr., & Edwards, Geoff. (2005).
Does Private Money Buy Public Policy? Campaign Contributions and
Regulatory Outcomes in Telecommunications. UC Berkeley: Institute
of Governmental Studies.
[7] Pink, Daniel H., Drive: The Surprising
Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead (December 29, 2009)
[8] Lepper, M.R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R.E. (1973). Undermining children’s
intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification”
hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.
[9] Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.(1999). A meta-analytic review of
experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic
motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-688.
[10] Kahneman, Daniel and Deaton, Agnus (2010), High income improves evaluation
of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, vol. 107 no. 38.
[11] “US Census Bureau news release in regards to median income”.
[12] “US Census Bureau, mean household income”.
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