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The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Press. 2010. 352 pp. $28.

For those of us who work in positions and institutions that are dedicated to finding a better way to organize human society, books like The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger are welcome eye openers. The authors, who are both U.K. epidemiologists, have constructed a compelling case for the warrant that societies with the highest levels of income distribution disparity have begun to suffer from greater social ills and health issues than societies with more income equality. The book, which cites numerous surveys and studies from around the world and in the U.S., chronicles the many significant correlations that exist between nations/U.S, states with a high disparity of income distribution and social problems such as violence, imprisonment, and numerous health issues.

These types of sweeping studies and the conclusions drawn by the book's authors are appropriately thought provoking (even alarming in some cases). However, some readers might take issue with the entire scientific process and the authors, to their credit, readily admit that they deal with correlations, which do not necessarily prove a theory or a given warrant within a theory. Nevertheless, comprehensive surveys like those covered in this book can lead to conclusions that carry great predictive value, which in and of themselves have great merit and lay the groundwork for future studies. In this respect, the authors have provided great service to sociologists around the world who may be engaged in trying to rethink our current formulations for modem human society.

For many others of wide-ranging professional disciplines, or simply the average voter in America who despairs at the complete loss of vision in today's political leaders for a better society, The Spirit Level offers some profound insights into how we may have gone wrong in the U.S. Ranking second to Singapore as the nation with the highest disparity of income distribution, the U.S. seems to have acquired some serious fissures within its social fabric. The authors cite rising incidences of per capita imprisonment, obesity, and several other social ills as evidence of this phenomenon, but more significantly, they pinpoint the precise issue that plagues the very essence of American society--growing distrust. They explain that the inequality of income distribution (as opposed to wealth, although clearly the two would be correlated) in a given society leads directly to not only social distress and stratification but also erosion of trust. Their premise, which seems entirely defensible from the evidence they produce, is that people who have completely different income levels and therefore live entirely different types of lifestyles, gradually come to experience life quite differently, which eventually results in loss of trust and an inability to empathize with other people's life circumstances.

Erosion of trust and lack of empathy in society is of course seriously disconcerting, and by all accounts of American political life in the last several years, the authors have hit upon a concrete and troubling phenomenon. Equally disturbing, although they do not mention the dynamics of systems theory directly, the authors point out an insidious aspect of social stratification it makes social status even more important to survival and further accentuates the effects of income distribution disparities. In other words, as workers in a market economy become more socially stratified, they necessarily place more emphasis on social status as a means of gaining more income, which in turn causes them to spend more time, attention, and money on both material and immaterial things that might improve that social status. Even more insidious, as the authors note, those whose social status is under pressure--who operate from the instinct for survival--tend to put down those of lower social status, further exacerbating the level of distrust between those of different income levels. The authors seek to validate this point by citing the rise in violence within American society and the surveys that indicate such violence is engendered by a perceived lack of respect toward the perpetrator by the victim(s).

While the authors make a compelling case that "we cannot carry on as we have" and advocate for nothing short of a "transformation" of our social fabric (not only in the U.S. but in Western society), they offer little in the way of creative ideas. Especially disappointing is their failure to even mention, let alone discuss, one possible source of hope for a transformed world--human spirit--even though they appear to make reference to it in the book's title. Presumably, the "spirit level" would involve some spiritual nature or capacity within the human species that would allow the collective consciousness to evolve and find a new compass for its social organization. Many different religious and spiritual belief systems in the Western world, including Christianity, stand for the proposition that the individual and one's own welfare must be secondary to that of the larger community of humanity. This type of thinking might have served as a possible source of the "transformation" advocated by the authors, so it is curious that they chose not to investigate it at all.

Peter A. Schuller, J.D.

Managing Director

The Institute for Applied Theology and Science

Branford, Connecticut
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Author:Schuller, Peter A.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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