February 9, 2010

Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

There is an interesting new book called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. I think the book is interesting for anyone who's trying to understand determinants for human well-being and thriving. Psychologists have known for a long time that situational arrangements importantly affect many aspects of our mental functioning and this book is a great and evidence based example of how this applies on a societal level.
Here is a brief description of the book's content: "Wilkinson and Pickett make an eloquent case that the income gap between a nation's richest and poorest is the most powerful indicator of a functioning and healthy society. Amid the statistics that support their argument (increasing income disparity sees corresponding spikes in homicide, obesity, drug use, mental illness, anxiety, teenage pregnancies, high school dropouts—even incidents of playground bullying), the authors take an empathetic view of our ability to see beyond self-interest. While there are shades of Darwinism in the human hunt for status, there is evidence that the human brain—with its distinctively large neocortex—evolved the way it has because we were designed to be attentive to, depend on, and be depended on by others. Wilkinson and Pickett do not advocate one way or the other to close the equality gap. Government redistribution of wealth and market forces that create wealth can be equally effective, and the authors provide examples of both. How societies achieve equality, they argue, is less important than achieving it in the first place. Felicitous prose and fascinating findings make this essential reading."


  1. I don't agree with their conclusion. I believe it matters A LOT how equality is achieved.
    I've lived through communist era in my country where... let's say there was a lot more equality than it is right now... and it wasn't better.
    Equality was forced down the people throats and very few liked it.

    In order to have equality we have to adopt the precepts of a religion like Christianity as they are described by Tolstoy. The precepts of "Level 3".

  2. Hi Peter,

    While I agree fully with you that the approaches used communist era are NOT the way to go, I think the point of the authors is not that ANY way of achieving greater equality is fine (killing everyone would obviously also eliminate all differences) but rather that there are SEVERAL routes to achieving it which are roughly equivalent.

  3. I'm a highly naive and idealistic person but not even I am so naive as to believe in "Government redistribution of wealth".

  4. Hi Peter,
    Each government which uses different taxation levels does apply this. Every Western-European government and many others throughout the world does apply this to some extent.

  5. Hi Coert,

    I view governments as highly corrupt... almost everywhere. :)

    I might have a bias due to my anarchist nature. :)

  6. I can imagine that having lived through communist era can make one very suspicious of governments

  7. It is not only communism...

    You should see "The People Speak":
    here is the trailer:

  8. Hi Peter, I agree with that point. Any authority must constantly be counterbalanced or it will corrupt. Freedom and justice have be guarded constantly. In that sense, I am worried about some trends in a country like the wonderful country Italy where freedom of press is under pressure according to many (to name just one worrying trend).
    I believe that freedom of speech and democracy are essential for any system to be just and vital.
    I am skeptical however about the possibility and usefulness of anarchism and libertarianism.
    There is no doubt that governments can be corrupt and harm the good of the people. However, does this prove that government must be kept as small and powerless as possible? Or does it mean that its power should be checked and controlled by a healthy democratic system, justice system and free press?
    I think that the former strategy does not work and the latter strategy is the only option.

  9. Power corrupts! Absolute Power corrupts absolutely!

    I understand your skepticism regarding anarchy, it is hard to understand it working because I believe that for it to work, you have to have another type of man, another type of thinking.

    I think that ultimately governments will disappear completely. There will be a move to local resiliency, local production of necessities, local everything and after this will be forced more or less by the fall in oil production, the central power will begin to fail because their control will be less and less justified. And then we will see TRUE demo-kratos.

  10. I see LAWS disappearing all together.

    To get a better idea about what am I talking about, look into the work of Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication.

    Once you understand the issue with automatic moralistic judgments that permeate the thinking of the current society you will understand the issue with the laws and the alternative... ;)

  11. How will countries' infrastructures be maintained?

    What happens to national defence? Do armies dissappear?

  12. The communities have a degree of independence (food, water, energy) and a degree of interdependence (specialty products, infrastructure).
    To give you a better idea think about what people are currently doing in a job. Now think about the ones who are passionate about their jobs and continuously seek improvement. How many are there now? 1%? 10%? What if you scale that attitude to a larger part of the population. What if people participate in making their local community space nicer not for a pay but just because is fun? What if infrastructure will be severely reduced by technological progress? Local production of energy from clean sources (solar/wind) will reduce the need for electrical infrastructure and gas. Local production and consumption of almost everything coupled with flying shuttles instead of train/trucks/buses will reduce the need for roads/railways or at least severely diminish the cost of infrastructure.

    As for national defense... defense from whom? Take a look at what collaboration made out of Europe. Do you see a reason why France should attack Germany or Spain attack Portugal? Wouldn't it be conceivable to extrapolate the peace created in Europe to the whole globe?

  13. While I do think many of these ideas are sympathetic I remain skeptical. Many many things have to be difference for this to work as I understand from what you say. Even people have be different and think different (another type of man, another type of thinking).

    So when will this ever become a reality? And what path will lead to it?

    What signs are there that such a anarchistic, lawless system will work? What signs are there that there is even a trends towards it? When in human history has it ever proven to work? When have there been successful communities without government, law, army etc?

    I believe that complex systems evolve gradually. Instead of taking big leaps, they often build on what is already there and then slightly improve things. this type of stepwise change seems more credible and feasible.

    I am not convinced about the feasibility of pacifism and non-violence for the same reason. What evidence is there that this will work? Will be all be totally free from any aggressive tendencies? Who guarantuees that not all of us will become so good and idealistic?

    I do believe the process of evoluation generally leads to better circumstances for many but I think that this is likely to happen slowly and gradually rather than quickly and drastically. Therefore i am very reluctant to believe in any idealistic idealogy (like communism)

  14. "So when will this ever become a reality? And what path will lead to it?"

    I don't know when this will become a reality but my intuition says that it is very close. It could happen within our life time or a few more generations down the road. The path that will lead to this is globalization coupled with local independence facilitated by technological advancement (at least this is how I view it). It will not be an abrupt change but a slow progression. People will become more aware of what's happening because of the information diffusion. Also, oil related issue will play a big role. The current way of doing things (since the Industrial revolution) is expiring.

    "When have there been successful communities without government, law, army etc?"

    Now, you know that lack of precedent doesn't mean impossibility. I guess that the biggest experience in anarchism was what was in Spain after the Spanish Revolution.

    "I am not convinced about the feasibility of pacifism and non-violence for the same reason. What evidence is there that this will work? Will be all be totally free from any aggressive tendencies?"

    You should really look into Nonviolent Communication. :) I'm sorry if I get too annoying with this but I do believe that it will help you better understand the role of non-violence. I remember listening to a workshop by Marshal Rosenberg where he was speaking about some experience in prisons with child molesters. He said that the first thing he did was to make sure that the molester didn't hated himself. You see, if he hated himself, the likelihood that he would repeat the offense was higher.

    Also, if you haven't seen it I would recommend watching Steven Pinker on the myth of violence.

  15. Hi Peter, Thanks. I know Steven Pinker and I have posted his presentation on this very site. I think what he says is wonderful and true. Also, I myself have non-violence initiation as a principle or a goal. And I am convinced the world will gradually continue to get less violent. What I am not convinced of is that this will happen in our lifetime. Also I am not convinced violence (or armies) will ever be completely gone.

    That I am not convinced and that my intuition says otherwise explains why I am looking for evidence and precedents.

    I am not convinced by what you say about anarchies. I agree that lack of precedent doesn't mean impossibility. But I am not saying it is impossible; I am saying it is not credible model to me. The Spain example does also not convince me (Why exactly should it? Was it successful? It what way?).

  16. Hi Coert,
    Well to be honest, my intuition doesn't give too many chances for that dream to happen within my life time. But it could happen.

    I'm thinking about critical mass. Just like in a dam, if too much watter comes too quickly, the dam will break. What we see now is a perfectly able dam but what it might be invisible to our eyes are factors like the erosion of the dam or the rising levels.

    Take Solution Focused Change. It is a small part of a small part but what if it gets used in a novel way to find solutions at a community level? What if it solves a high publicity problem and gets adopted wider? With all the means of Internet communication it will not grow linearly but exponentially. Or at leas this is the potential I view.

  17. I agree that such tipping point effects can take place. For instance, in New York, Crime figures have gone way down suddenly in the 1990's.

    I do try to contribute to improving things in the world in a small way. I would like things to become better. What I am skeptical about is grand visions, promises and ideologies. Communism once sounded like a good idea too (to many at least). Therefore I would never say that everybody should become solution-focused. I am skeptical about this type of convincing. I don't oversee the whole of the world I am not sure people should use SFC. They can choose themselves.

    Here is a fiction book about different kinds of Utopia's and how they fail: http://bit.ly/c3sH3i

  18. I saved today a quote... I think you will like it! :)
    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
    Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

    - Siddhārtha Gautama

  19. Sam Harris: “Just how much inequality can free people endure?” http://huff.to/hdqifR

  20. http://bit.ly/ijkCWu - Shigehiro Oishi, Selin Kesebir, and Ed Diener: “Income disparity has grown a lot in the U.S., especially since the 1980s. With that, we’ve seen a marked drop in life satisfaction and happiness.” “The implications are clear: If we care about the happiness of most people, we need to do something about income inequality.” One way to accomplish that end, is with more progressive taxation.


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