New Internationalist, 2012, 176 pp, pbk, 1 78026 071 6, £7.99
Dorling’s egalitarian tract is, as Richard Wilkinson suggests in his foreword, ‘multi-faceted and rich in insights’ (p.7). Throughout the book, countries in which inequality is greatest are compared with those exhibiting greater equality ( – Dorling is, after all, a geographer), and by the end of the book the deluge of facts and graphs has delivered the same message as Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: that inequality is bad for us, and as bad for the rich as for the poor. But there are some major differences between The Spirit Level and this book. Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to show by statistical methods that income inequality causes other kinds of inequality, and their passion lies under the surface of cool statistical description. There is little attempt at prescription. Dorling’s book, on the other hand, is a passionate denunciation of inequality in all of its forms, a somewhat utopian desire for greater equality, and a clear prescription of what is required.
It is of the nature of such committed essays that argument is cumulative rather than linear, and that is the case here. We are treated to a ‘multi-faceted’ approach, and what we might call a holdall of a book. We are told that we are going to experience a positive exposition of equality rather than a polemic against inequality, but in fact we are treated to frequent oscillation between the disbenefits of inequality and the benefits of equality. On a single page (for instance, p.53) we find wide sweeps of history, the evolution of public schools, and how religions evolve, and such diversity of material is far from unusual. This all makes for an unnerving ride, but it isn’t without its excitement. The book is divided into chapters: ‘Why equality matters’, ‘What is equality?’ ‘Winning greater equality – and losing it’, ‘When we are more equal’, ‘Where equality can be found’, and ‘How we win greater equality’. But each chapter is in fact a somewhat random selection of inequalities and what’s wrong with them, and of more equal countries and what’s right with them – including the final chapter, which contains a clear prescription preceded and followed by yet more material on inequalities and the need for equality.
None of this is a criticism. The book is a compelling read, and you finish it utterly convinced of the damage done by inequality, and of the necessity for greater equality – for equality defined broadly as ‘being afforded the same rights, dignity and freedoms as other people’ (p.41).
The prescription? The book contains numerous carefully researched and argued denunciations of the damage done by educational segregation ( – including a devastatingly cool description of how wealthier and more privately educated Bristol gets a lower proportion of its children into higher education than does poorer and less privately educated Sheffield), so we expect the final chapter to suggest that the abolition of private education, or at least the removal of its charitable status, would contribute to greater equality in the UK. But we don’t. Instead we find several pages of advocacy for a Citizen’s Income. (Dorling is right to suggest that children in the UK receive such a universal benefit, but mistaken to suggest that elderly people receive one – they don’t: they receive National Insurance and means-tested benefits, though they will receive something closer to a Citizen’s Pension if the recent Department for Work and Pensions consultation gives rise to legislation for a single tier state pension.) Dorling has previously been somewhat less convinced about the usefulness of a Citizen’s Income, but his passionate exploration of inequality, his longing for greater equality, and his reading of Callinicos, have persuaded him of both the desirability and the feasibility of an unconditional, nonwithdrawable income for every individual as a right of citizenship – though he remains well aware of the political obstacles in the path of its implementation.
I’ve called The No-Nonsense Guide to Equality a book. Yes, in some ways it is a book, but it might be better to call it sustained, well-argued and passionate journalism. Whether or not you find yourself sympathetic to the political stance represented by The New Internationalist, the publisher, if you are concerned about growing inequality and would like to see greater equality then you will enjoy this book and will find it an inspiration.
The publisher is to be commended on the price.