Fair go nation has gone

by Peter Wilson, The Australian; May 9, 2009.

Australia may have built its reputation as a society that offers a ‘fair go,’ but a recently released book challenges this selfperception. And what’s more, it says our lack of equality may be bad for our health.

The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, has already stirred up debate in the United Kingdom. Now, this book has come to Australia. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, personally gave a copy to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd when he was visiting London. The innovative, analytical approach that underpins the book is epidemiological. The authors argue that unequal countries suffer a greater level of disease at all income levels compared to more economically equitable nations.

They present data on mental illness, obesity, cardiovascular disease, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and violence ranging from school bullying to murder. And the results? Higher rates of each of these social ills are recorded at all levels in those societies which have less economic equality.

Wilkinson and Pickett theorize that acute status difference has a psychological and hormonal effect that contributes to health problems. Australia – in contrast with its self image – is identified as one of the most unequal societies out of the twenty-three largest developed nations. This would have a consequence for the current government which has built a policy platform around the idea of social inclusion.

The book posits that the scale of income differences has a powerful effect on how citizens relate to each other and the pressure that is felt by those along the entire length of the spectrum. Of course, critics have pointed out that differences in rates of disease among nations could be described by more complicated interplays of cultural and social behaviours. Inevitably, there is disagreement about what the data can actually prove.

At the very least, Wilson points out, the book shakes Australians’ notion that it remains a ‘fair go’ nation. The authors’ “argument for equality [is] not a plea for fairness but a warning to the rich and middle classes that they will end up worse off unless they ensure that the poorer members of society are doing well.”

In contrast to Peter Singer who writes about the logic of giving, Wilkinson and Pickett believe that contributing to a more equitable world can be better for your health. To see the article: www.theaustralian.news.com.au/ story/0,,25448645-28737,00.html

To order a copy of the book: www.equalitytrust.org.uk/ resource/the-spirit-level

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