Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

IN 2009 Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published their seminal book The Spirit Level which demonstrated in forensic detail how people living in societies with great inequality tend to suffer from a wide range of health and social problems.

Now they have written the sequel called The Inner Level in which they examine how inequality affects us as individuals.

In the new work the authors identify five problems relating the inequality and four benefits that would accrue from greater equality. One of the key findings, however, is that intelligence does not create hierarchies – as Boris Johnson ludicrously tried to demonstrate with a pack of cornflakes. Rather, it is the other way round; hierarchies cause different levels of intelligence. As the authors amusingly put it: “Whether or not Johnson is quite as clever a cornflake as he presumably likes to think, he certainly isn’t in possession of the facts.” Not only is it untrue that the most intelligent automatically rise the top of the pack of cornflakes but ‘inequality, far from spurring on economic growth, leads to stagnation and instability’.

In this new book Wilkinson and Pickett also argue that inequality exacerbates socially graded problems – that is those ‘which become more common lower down the social ladder’. Secondly, unequal societies tend to have less social mobility and poorer social cohesion. Their fourth contention is that inequality increases anxieties about social status and, finally, that it heightens consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

By creating greater equality status doesn’t matter as much as it does today in grossly unequal societies like the USA and the UK. Secondly, ‘we move from a society that maximises consumption and status, to a society that uses each increase in productivity to gain more leisure and reduce the demands of work’. Their proposals involve reforming taxes and benefits systems and include ‘plans for a basic income and for a land tax’. They add: “Indeed, the increasing prospect of many jobs being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence means that a basic income may become a necessity.”

Thirdly, the authors urge a greater degree of democracy in the workplace claiming that this will result in the ‘improvement in the quality of working life’. Finally, there will be a huge improvement in the health and social wellbeing in a more equal society.

Interestingly, the authors make the strong claim that inequality is the result of political decisions linked to shifts in ideology. “This overall pattern – the initial long decline and later increase in inequality – reflects the strengthening and then the weakening of the labour movement and the political ideology which accompanied it. If you take the proportion of the labour force in trade unions as a measure of the strength of the labour movement’s influence as a countervailing voice in society, the relationship with inequality is very clear.”

Unfortunately, however, the authors do not engage with the claim by Walter Scheidel in his book The Great Leveller that only violent events – massive mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse and catastrophic plagues – have destroyed the fortunes of the rich and created significantly greater equality. Scheidel is much less optimistic about our ability to radically reduce inequality by peaceful means. He argues that if radical policies were introduced these would ‘reverse the effect of resurgent inequality only partially’. He adds: “Across recorded history, the periodic compressions of inequality brought about by mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and pandemics have invariably dwarfed any known instances of equalization by entirely peaceful means.” And he is doubtful whether the massive amounts of government intervention required to produce significantly less inequality is sustainable.

It would be interesting to know what Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s response to this would be. I suppose the obvious answer is that no matter insignificant the peaceful reduction of inequality would be it would, nevertheless, be worth attempting in view of the benefits they have identified. And the amount a government should spend on social wellbeing, how an economy actually works (see Andrew’s article) and what it is for are themselves interesting questions that Scheidel only sketchily addresses.