Friday, January 8, 2010

The Spirit Level

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies StrongerThe Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Kate Pickett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The authors propose a welcome vision for the peaceful transformation of society. The first two thirds of the book is a marshaling of facts and figures that show, in their view as health researchers, that wide divisions of material wealth are bad for the rich as well as the poor. They tellingly do not point out (perhaps it's that British reserve) that such wide divisions in human society have generally resulted in bloody revolt (usually very bad for the rich). They vote for gentle revolution instead.

Simplified: greater inequality results in social tension, lack of trust (both interpersonal and towards society as a whole), lower lifespans and levels of wellness both physical and mental for the poor AND the rich, and the breakdown of society; greater equality leads to a firm social fabric, greater interpersonal and impersonal trust, less violence, better health and longevity for all. The societies at the "top" of the world have entered a phase where greater wealth is not providing a better life, or indeed, better opportunities, for all. In fact, such societies have higher rates of physical and mental illness, violence, crime, and suicide.

Capitalism is not democracy. Communism (as practiced by the state) didn't work. What shall we do? The authors acknowledge that the political will to change must come from the grassroots level, from the bottom up, as it were. (As most beneficial changes in societies have.) They also seem to realize that people are not moved to change by rational thought and the thoughtful presentation of facts and figures. They call on Martin Luther's vision of the arc of history leading toward the good, and ask all like-minded people to help further the vision by promoting equality in many different ways.

I am amazed and happy to say that they have a proposal for social change that doesn't rely on violence or plague. It involves rather than a simple (ha!) redistribution of wealth, that governments act proactively to provide incentives for a major shift in business (from corporation to cooperation)--where the ownership of businesses changes from that of anonymous shareholders to that of mutually responsible and accountable employees. They argue that unethical and morally reprehensible acts (carried out by tobacco and oil companies, for example) are easier for people when they are "only following orders" than when they are both making the decisions and carrying out the acts. Also that people are happier and more productive when they perceive that they have more control over their lives.

It's time for our world to move beyond the age of the individual and toward a society that mirrors our innate sense of fairness and goodwill.

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