Renewed political interest in measuring wellbeing raises questions about what kind of society produces the best results. So can you buy happiness?
In the three years since it was published, The Spirit Level – that famous study into the social impact of inequality – has continued to cause a stir in political and policy circles.
The book’s central thesis – that more equal societies (those with higher levels of income equality) are also better societies – has prompted much contention and sometimes bitter debate. These disputes have reached the highest levels of British politics, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband drawing upon the ideas in the book.
One reason for the debates surrounding this issue is the growing political and academic interest in population happiness and subjective wellbeing. The Office of National Statistics has spent the last year, with strong support from the prime minister, investigating the determinants of wellbeing and life satisfaction in the UK.
This interest in well-being coincides with increasingly intense questioning of dominant, more economic, definitions of ‘progress’. The Spirit Level’s authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, argue that more egalitarian societies have a lower incidence of health and social problems, such as obesity and child mortality. There is a strong debate emerging – amongst economists and philosophers such as Richard Layard, Robert Skidelsky and Michael Sandel – about how we can qualitatively improve society, beyond simplistic measures such as GDP.
The Spirit Level offers a plausible solution to this conundrum; make society more equal and it will begin to improve, the authors say. The explanation is that higher equality translates into better health and social outcomes because more equal societies are also the most socially cohesive.
Such societies have stronger social relationships between individuals, groups, places and social institutions. In egalitarian societies, so the theory goes, people trust each other more, display altruistic and cooperative behaviour, trust institutions, engage in community life and have stronger social networks.
The implications of this could be profound in policy terms. If higher equality does lead to stronger social cohesion, then there is a plausible route for policymakers to take in order to improve outcomes such as wellbeing and life satisfaction. But how true is the theory?
While The Spirit Level is good at linking income inequality to different health and social problems, there is less evidence in the way of social cohesion. In other words, are more equal societies really the most cohesive?
On some indicators, it seems that they are. If we compare the five most equal countries in The Spirit Level (Japan plus the Nordic states) with the five most unequal (Australia, the UK, Portugal, Singapore and the US) for three common indicators of social cohesion – social trust, electoral turnout and confidence in political parties – we find that the five most ‘cohesive’ societies for each indicator are almost overwhelmingly drawn from the most equal group.
However for other common indicators of social cohesion it seems that more equal societies are not necessarily the most cohesive. For example, when we look at membership of different associations, strength of social support networks and the importance attached to family and friends, we find that the most equal group of countries takes just 7 out of the 15 top places: less than 50 per cent.
So what is going on here? In my working paper on the issue I argue that income inequality seems to be linked to some dimensions of social cohesion, but not to others. The dimensions that inequality is linked to appear to be those that exist between the individual and broad, macro-level concepts: like the rest of society (social trust) or social institutions (such as political parties, trade unions, industry and the media).
Whenever the level of income inequality is measured against these kinds of indicators of social cohesion, we find – more often not – a significant link. These kind of relationships are often described as ‘bridging social capital’: social ties that exist within hierarchical or unequal relations.
However, sociologists have also defined a second type of social capital: ‘bonding social capital’. Unlike ‘bridging’ ties, bonding relationships are those that exist between individuals on an equal (or near-equal) footing, such as ties with our friends and family. Importantly, the data show no link between income inequality and bonding types of social cohesion. Unequal societies, it transpires, are no less likely than equal ones to report healthy relationships with family or stronger social support networks.
What could all this mean for public policy? First, the top headline is that inequality seems to matter for some types of social cohesion. This means that any policy commitment to reducing inequality could have the potential to yield socially beneficial results: a more trusting society, for example, with a stronger civic infrastructure.
However, the second policy conclusion is more complex. If there is indeed a link between inequality and health and social problems, then the causal mechanism that produces such problems appears more complicated than some might suggest.
We don’t know, for example, whether health inequalities are more closely linked to social trust (bridging social capital) than to the strength of social support networks (bonding social capital). We need to examine more closely the relationship between social problems, such as poor health, and these two qualitatively different types of social cohesion.
If negative social outcomes are found to be more closely linked to the ‘bridging’ type of social capital, then all the pieces might just fit together. And the political argument for reducing inequality would surely be strengthened.
Daniel Sage is a researcher in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling