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The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane 2009)

There was a recent article in The Globe and Mail that mentioned in passing that the homicide rate in the state of Kerala in India, which has much the same population as Canada, is only half that of the Indian average. The literature on this state in southern India indicates that its social statistics generally are far better than the Indian average. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates resemble Western figures rather than Third World ones. Most encouraging of all the ratio of men to women in all age groups matches Western figures while in most of rural India, as in rural China, there is a huge imbalance that results from many family's decisions to kill baby girls and place the family's future in the hands of baby boys. Such decisions are often made as a way of insuring that parents will have someone to look after them in old age in jurisdictions where provision for seniors is slight or non-existent. In Kerala, families look to the state, not their children, for aid in old age.

Yet Kerala is not one of India's wealthier states. Indeed it is one of the poorer states. Why then are its social statistics so much closer to those of advanced capitalist countries? The answer, in brief, is that for much of the period since 1957, Kerala has been governed by elected Left-wing coalitions led initially by the Communist Party of India (CPI) and later by the Marxist Communist Party of India (CPI-M). The Left governments have implemented an array of social programs, including guaranteed food rations for all residents, and have supported the trade union movement's efforts to improve wages and working conditions. The Kerala example is a Third World example that demonstrates that it is levels of social equality, rather than levels of economic development, that determine how successful a jurisdiction will be in improving the lives of the majority of the people, from reducing crime to providing greater gender equality to extending the average lifespan to maintaining low rates of obesity. Cuba, of course, is another shining example.

Wilkinson's and Pickett's The Spirit Level demonstrates, with abundant statistical evidence, that the same principle applies to advanced capitalist economies. If you want to know how well a particular country is likely to do in achieving lower rates of violent crime, longer lifespans, lower incidences of physical and mental health problems, less use of narcotics, and slimmer waistlines, one question will yield most of what you want to know: how much wealthier are the top 20 per cent of residents than the bottom 20 per cent? The smaller the gap, the better the social outcomes. That's true regardless of how a country goes about distributing or redistributing wealth to produce a smaller income gap. In Scandinavia, decades of social democratic governments and strong labour movements have produced a myriad of social programs, which in turn employ an army of generally well-paid employees. Progressive taxation to pay for these programs has further redistributed wealth. But Japan, where the social wage is unimpressive relative to most European countries and the labour movement is weak, has achieved, via corporatist policies, an income gap that is no greater than Scandinavia's and can boast social outcomes at least as good as those of Norway or Sweden.

It is little surprise that Wilkinson and Pickett are able to demonstrate that the poor in more equal countries are less poor than their counterparts in the most unequal long-established capitalist democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, and have better social outcomes than the poor in these unequal [End Page 298] countries. What is perhaps more surprising is that the poor in Scandinavia, Holland, and Japan actually have better social outcomes than the rich in the most unequal countries. It would seem, ironically, that the very people who campaign hardest against government policies, including taxation, minimum wages, and support for trade unions, that could redistribute wealth, do themselves no favours in the process. Yes...