30 September 2009

Equality is good for everyone

I normally don't recommend books. Other people's tastes are just too easy to misinterpret. You think you know what they'd like but you're just a bit off and that bit is critical. However, there is one book I will recommend, not to specific readers but to everyone who is concerned about dealing with the social ills that plague our society. The book is The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The book, based on thirty years of research, discusses two profoundly important discoveries about human societies:
  • More equal societies have lower rates of heart disease, crime, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness and other social ills than less equal societies, and
  • The rates are lower not only for the poor but for the rich as well, i.e. everyone benefits from equality.
The authors graphically illustrate that in those societies with the most unequal incomes, health and crime rates are much higher than in more equal societies. Furthermore, they show that the rates aren't determined by absolute levels of poverty but by relative levels within a society. The reason, they argue, is that in more unequal societies, there is less social cohesion, less trust. There is increased insecurity, more stress and a greater obsession with status.

The authors determined that if the United States, the most unequal of the rich countries, reduced its income inequality to the average of the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland), the proportion of Americans who felt they could trust others might rise by 75 per cent, rates of mental illness and obesity drop by two-thirds, teenage birth rates by half, the prison population by 75 per cent, and people could live longer while working less.

The most mind-expanding book I have ever read is Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, which astonished me by revealing the purpose of life. This book isn't that astonishing but it is a groundbreaking work that challenges governments to seriously rethink their social policies based on a paradigm of equality. Apparently the authors had considered calling it Evidence-based Politics. They certainly provide the evidence.

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