Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book ‘The Spirit Level‘ is formidable. Their empirical evidence shows that greater levels of income inequality in economically advanced countries leads to worse health outcomes for all parts of that society. The clear evidence they present convinces me that economic growth can only take the wellbeing of a society so far; what matters subsequently is fairness and greater income equality.
Since Thatcher, neo-liberalism has gained both the intellectual and the political highground. Neo-liberalism is not simply a shift towards the political right, but an ideology that has changed the terms of political thought and policies for all parts of the mainstream political spectrum.
But the political currency leo-liberalism it has dealt it has changed for both the left and the right. Under a centre-left government in Britain, welfare has increasingly become conditional, rather than something that everyone is entitled to should they be unfortunate enough to fall on hard times. Meanwhile, political discourse on both the left and right has hardened: “Broken Britain”, the “Respect Agenda”, the “hunting down” of benefits cheats.
This is the political environment ‘The Spirit Level’ is up against. However, there is no explicit attempt by Wilkinson and Pickett to change the political currency that it deals in: The book says, for instance:
“to say that a change in ideology can affect income distribution is not at all the same as saying that it can also affect all the health and social problems we have discussed”.
Wilkinson and Pickett’s political argument compared to the evidence base they have created is therefore rather impotent. They don’t seem interested in challenging the neo-liberal political status quo, and seem to be appealing to poltical elites on their terms, willing to work within existing modes of political thought rather than challenging them.
They and other academics in their field might think it crazy, utopian, and messianic to attempt to articulate a coherent argument about how to shift away from neo-liberalism rather than working within in its bounds. But with the collapse of free market capitalism and the impending global environmental problems, I don’t: a fundamental political shift in valuing environmental and social wellbeing over wealth and economic wellbeing is needed now.
Wilkinson and Pickett want us to change the first principles that society is based on and they present convincing evidence for why this needs to happen. Their political argument, however, doesn’t go far enough – the change that is needed in our political values system won’t come from their thesis.