Tuesday, 27 October 2009

More equal societies do better at almost everything

Sometimes academics show clearly something that has always stood to reason. Sometimes, their findings are truly startling.

The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinsonis a statistical romp through the data on a range of social ills: mental ill-health, teenage pregnancy levels, poor life expectancy, levels of crime and violence in society, and so on, and it finds something that is either remarkable, or stands to reason, depending on your perspective.

In short, Picket and Wilkinson conclude, the more equal a society is - the smaller the gap between the richest and poorest, in other words - the better that society performs, at pretty much everything, for pretty much everyone.

For example, they look at levels of crime and violence, and find that they are far more prevalent in countries like the USA, UK and Portugal and far less common in, say, Japan and Norway. This seems to be exactly as you'd expect if you were looking for a link between violence levels and inequality - but shows that crime levels are relatively unaffected by harsher punishments - indeed, they show, the reverse might even be true.

Countries with a more lenient judicial system based on the principles of restorative justice tend, if anything, to have lower crime rates than those that impose long prison sentences - or worse - for even fairly minor crimes.

But it's equality that's the clear driver here.

The same is true using just about any other measure.

Less equal societies, particularly the USA, UK and Portugal, tend to have poorer health, shorter life expectancy, lower levels of education and more teenage pregnancies, than more egalitarian countries, like Japan and the Scandinavian nations.

The question the book poses for policy-makers is startling: is the best way of improving social and health outcomes simply to improve levels of equality rather than tackle the individual problem?

Perhaps the best way, for example, of raising school performance, is to increase tax levels on the richest and increase benefit payments to the poorest, rather than to interfere with what the teaching professionals are doing in schools?

To take deliberate action to make society more equal, in other words.

If you want to, you can buy the book here - but I'm sure it'll be in your local library soon, if it isn't already!

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

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