Equality – and social security – is better for everyone, and for a sustainable future

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone was published in 2009. Written by [British epidemiologists and economists] Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption“. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries [than in equal rich countries]. (Excerpt from the Equality Trust website launched by the authors, with links to further details on each of the “health and social problems” listed).

The book is structured as follows to demonstrate its thesis. The first chapters contain statistical evidence, in which inequality is positively correlated to each and every one of these “health and social problems” (i.e. the trend is that more unequal societies experience more problems). The entities being considered in the statistical investigation are the large countries of the OECD, the club of industrialised countries that produces homogeneous sets of statistical data, and the 50 united States of America. The following chapters explain the causal relationship (beyond the statistical correlation) between inequality and these “health and social problems”: inequality causes stress, which itself releases the hormone called cortisol. Permanent high levels of cortisol are known to increase violence, to cause inflammations (and thus cancer), to deteriorate mental performance (and thus educational achievements), and to generate obesity.

The conclusion is in the title: Equality is better for everyone – including for the rich. As an example given in the book, neonatal deaths are less frequent among poor Finnish women (an equal society), than among rich English and Welsh women (an unequal one).

This book has changed my life, and the way I look at society and at social problems. I recommend it highly to anyone. I used to feel afraid and helpless when confronted with the myriads of social problems that our societies experience, and discouraged at the thought that no prevention or cure existed for them, only costly palliatives. I thought that there was no other possible action than to give money to the admirable social care associations who fight desperate battles to keep drowning people afloat. After reading this book, I know where political action is possible, and where efforts should be concentrated, because they are effective and efficient: towards equality. The road is difficult, and long – but clear. I stopped complaining about the misbehaviour of motorcycle riders, the rudeness of café waiters or the place taken by obese people in public transport. I know that all of them are victims of the same plague, inequality, and that this political struggle for equality is the common means to solve or alleviate most of these problems.

The book induced in me two more reflections:

  1. it initiates a very interesting argument connecting equality with sustainability
  2. I believe that further research would be needed to investigate the role of precariousness in these stress-induced “health and social problems”.

I knew already that equality is a condition for sustainability policies to work. It is only if the adaptation effort required by the transition to sustainability is fairly shared that it will be socially and politically acceptable. The book “the Spirit Level” adds another, anthropological, dimension to this connection between equality and sustainability. In unequal societies, people consume, over-consume and fall in debt, not to fulfil their needs, but to display their social status. This display is not a personal choice, it is a necessity for them to be protected against hostility: it is only by showing that I belong to the rich and the powerful that I deter people from harming me. Reciprocally, only equal societies can stand to consume to fulfil needs only, and thus be frugal enough to be sustainable.

The connection made by the authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson between inequality and stress makes sense. In unequal societies, the competition for social status is fierce, and society gives less to those having less, so that any failure entails a risk of spiralling down: after a failure, I have less, so that I receive less support by society, causing me to fail even more, and fall deeper. The threat of a downward spiral ending in poverty and homelessness is a frightening – and stressful – reality in unequal societies.

There may be a second, and powerful, factor causing stress in societies: precariousness. When my income can disappear at any time, when I have no form of social security nor of employment protection, I live in permanent fear for my immediate future, as the poor social classes in the global South bitterly experience daily. Since the rich unequal societies (mainly in the Anglo-Saxon world: the United States of America, the United Kingdom) are also those with the highest level of precariousness – because of their libertarian “hire and fire” dogma – the respective effects of inequality and of precariousness may be difficult to disentangle from each other in statistical data. But investigating the effects of precariousness on the “health and social problems” highlighted by Pickett and Wilkinson would definitely make sense. Does anyone know about existing studies?