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April 27, 2009

Richard D. North argues that greater equality may not make us happier: The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better - Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Posted by Richard D. North

The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Pp. 331. London, Allen Lane, 2009
Hardback, £20

In brief
This book is a clear and comprehensive exposition - the most comprehensive yet - of the case which is being made to support the thesis that Britain and other Anglosphere countries ought to be far more equal. The case is that inequality actually creates misery and does so on a scale which morally requires us to take political action.

If the case were proven, it would indeed be morally compelling. It is being taken as proven by the likes of Phillip Blond and John Cruddas and is now entrenched as the underpinning of the Government's attempt to address inequality in a systematic way.

However, one must be quite selective of the actual data to get to the result sought by the egalitarians.

The book and its place in the argument
You might expect this book to make modishly post-materialist remarks, and you would be right. It does bring some new angles to the old idea that Anglosphere countries ought to become more equal. The arguments here are, by the way, mostly about the rich world. There is next to nothing about the role of inequality in "poor" countries. If you fancy a brief introduction to its thesis, you might try the Guardian's rather pedestrian and very supportive review. John Kay in the FT was friendly but much more sceptical and on lines similar to those I develop below.

The Spirit Level's authors have some rather romantic ideas about how equality might be achieved (lots more co-operatives and so on). Spiked Online thought the whole thesis counter-revolutionary. Insofar as inequality is a problem, the radicals think, it is wrong to sort it out without popular activism.

Meantime it is quite possible that the recession has produced some of the effects the authors seek: the financial meltdown may have clobbered the top 20 percent of Western countries even more than the bottom 20.

The Spirit Level doesn't prove a very strong connection between inequality and the social evils it is worried about. Insofar as there is evidence of a connection, the book doesn't prove it to be causal rather than a matter of correlation. And the authors totally ignore such benign correlations as those between unequal societies and theatre, research excellence and excitement.

Finally, to close this summary of some of the arguments, you can see the whole thing seriously undermined by evidence cited on my own website. Amongst others I cite is The Economist's own accounts of some of the evidence, to which has recently been added its sceptical review of the approach of the gloomy publicists of the Mental Health Foundation to their own rather cheering evidence about British unhappiness.

The Economist points to OECD evidence which shows that UK anti-depressant use was average amongst OECD countries in 2000 and is now rising, but not so fast as it is in the Scandinavian countries admired by The Spirit Level, some of which have always consumed more of these drugs than the wicked old UK. Now all of them do.

The old-new inequality argument
The Spirit Level is a repetition of a modern and increasingly familiar argument that the Big Thing about inequality is the emotional and psychological impact of people's perception of the differences between society's stratas. For an interesting, sympathetic and more idiosyncratic account of this inner thesis about status stress, try John Carey's Sunday Times review. I am cynical about this part of the book's argument. I think it is adopted because it is a line which cannot be proved either way. That helps when there is no other evidence that inequality is a problem.

My core argument against The Spirit Level (beyond its mangling of data) is that it won't see that the kind of society which tolerates inequality is brutal in lots of other ways too as a matter of correlation not cause. And if that's how we like it, then that's our choice. The Spirit Level says there is poll data which insists large majorities in the UK and US believe inequality is a bad thing. That's all very well, but they have voted for it for years and Labour did better only once it ceased to assert that it wanted to be oppressively egalitarian.

Three quite new inequality arguments
The book highlights various new or newish developments in the equality debate and they are nicely counter-intuitive. If the cases could be made to stand up, we'd have a book of serious note.

Here they are.

Argument #1. Inequality is a predictor of a much wider range of social ills than hitherto supposed. That's to say: inequality causes damage of widely divergent sorts. In other words, we could cure masses of problems by reducing inequality. Key quote:

……among the rich developed countries and among the fifty states of the United States, …. most of the important health and social problems of the rich world are more common in more unequal societies.
Argument #2.This is that Argument #1 applies just as well in relatively rich or poor societies within the West. That's to say: a country's average income is a much weaker guide to its social well-being than its inequality. In other words: it isn't affluence or poverty which produces dysfunction, it is the gap between them which does the damage. Key quote:
The problems in rich societies are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.
Argument #3. Social dysfunction in unequal societies applies almost as much to the rich within them as to the poor. That’s to say: even the rich cannot escape the dysfunction caused by inequality. In other words, the gap between rich and poor damages the rich almost as much as the poor. (This argument is not new to fans of Professor Sir Michael Marmot of UCL.) Key quote:
…. These differences [between more or less equal societies] are not differences between high- and low-risk groups within populations which might apply to only a small proportion of the population, or just to the poor. Rather, they are difference between the prevalence of different problems which apply to whole populations.
I don't think any of these are proven.

Unpicking the book
The book is a fairly standard diatribe against affluence, in the sense that it remarks that over a certain quite low level of development, social improvements and reported well-being tail off. One can certainly make that case, though it is both superficially reinforced and profoundly confounded by the evidence (included in some graphs in the book) that the first massive improvements in welfare (for example, life expectancy) take place at very low levels of development in some countries. In others, they don't. But I'd say that few people would argue that they want to stay quite poor because they believe that getting quite rich won't add much to their longevity.

What's more, to return to the rich world, in some egalitarian affluent societies (eg, Denmark) life expectancy is lowish and similar to that in the very unequal USA, whilst life expectancy is highish in both the egalitarian Sweden and the unequal Australia.

This is the moment to point out that one can pick important holes in very many of the graphs on which the book is proudly and loudly based. In case after case, the graphs reveal important exceptions to the rule being promulgated.

Some of these positively leap out of the graphs. You are more likely to be an overweight teenager in egalitarian Spain or Greece than in the unequal UK. You are more likely to be a fat adult in egalitarian Finland, Germany or Ireland than in unequal Italy.

Weirdly, Portugal is wildly unequal but it is quite often much nicer than other similarly unequal societies (though it sometimes improbably joins the Anglosphere in nastiness). By the way, many other fascinating anomalies in the book's thesis receive scant attention from the authors.

These exceptions to the authors' rules are not marginal or a matter of outliers. Very often within a narrow band of inequality, the authors find a wide range in bad outcomes. Similarly, in other cases within a wide band of inequality, they often find a small range in bad outcomes.

What's more, whilst the authors can often say that in general unequal countries produce bad effects, the culprits which make the various cases vary considerably. The authors' listed countries are of course fixed in their relative inequality. But their position in the various dysfunction charts vary quite a lot.

America's inner inqualities
This is perhaps the moment to note that the book looks at evidence about equality differences between US states and finds they correlate closely with social failure. I am not convinced by this argument. Without anything clever-clogs about inequality I can easily get why egalitarian Vermont, New Hampshire and Minnesota are very different to (and more socially successful than) unequal Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama or even unequal Texas and Arizona. In America race and immigration are important factors, as indeed is a taste for non-interference. Besides I rather spitefully love the way unequal New York and Connecticut do quite well socially. What's more, and as I have noted elsewhere, there is pretty good evidence that rich Americans do much better than poor ones in mental health terms and the only dent in the case comes from rich women whose travails are well-known from every American movie, novel or documentary you ever saw. (This may mean that women can't handle inequality, though men can.)

Inequality and social immobility
One argument in the book is quite tough to refute. This is that social mobility - once a badge of the Anglosphere - does indeed seem to have departed these shores and pitched up in Scandinavia instead. On the book’s argument, the Anglosphere is socially static because it is unequal. There may be something in that in the sense that to go from the bottom to the top of Anglosphere societies is a longer haul than to make the same journey in Scandinavia. However it is also likely that in the Anglosphere societies there is less social pressure to be educated in the way required to be useful to modern societies. This second argument is about correlations with inequality, not about inequality imposing itself as a cause. By the way, the OECD says that inequality in some countries is importantly to do with their allowing an "underclass" to develop.

This might imply (though not necessarily) that there being an unusual proportion of rich people might have less to do with any problems related to their being rich than there being a desperate and perhaps unusually large sink of poor people.

Of course, any bad news about the West is blindingly obvious to all right-thinking people. In that narrative, the USA is much more unequal than most western societies and it is widely believed that it is socially a complete basket case. The UK, its poodle, limps along in its wake, very unequal and quite troubled. Actually, the OECD says the UK has - like Greece and Mexico - been getting slightly less unequal since about 2000.

More nit-picking
Our authors find that however ghastly the UK is, your Brit's chances of being the victim of homicide are lower than many others' including the Frenchman's or the Italian's. But the British child will apparently experience much more conflict than most.

More generally, the UN (which these authors love) assesses your British child's chances of wellbeing as the lowest of all rich children, and by miles. However, and here is another case of these authors not doing their readers the favour of explaining their own glaring inconsistencies, the same UN says that the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA (the Anglosphere, unequal, dysfunctional and all that) are nonetheless comfortable world leaders in the "Human Development Index" and right up there (in the UK's case a little ahead) of super-virtuous Sweden. The UN says the UK even has a lower ecological footprint than super-green Sweden, so there.

Some RDN arguments
Much of the data in this book is drawn from material I have criticised at length elsewhere, so I won't trouble you with all that again here. I refer especially to well-being and mental health data, in which Lord (Richard) Layard, Oliver James, and the authors under present review all seem to delight in being highly selective.

It may be worth developing slightly different arguments here.

There maybe something to the inequality argument
The Spirit Level argues that Western societies need more equality and that they need that even more than they need to address their average or national income, or even their levels of poverty. The book may make an impact because some charming and unworldly people may not have quite clocked the elementary fact that the Anglosphere has many merits but it is not as nice as Scandinavia or the northern Continent or the Mediterranean Littoral (in more or less that order). We can dispute that the Anglosphere is all that awful, but it may be as well to suggest that it is in fact quite deliberately a little awful. It is part of the brisk brutality of the Anglosphere that it relishes success and failure.

It should be no surprise that there is a link between inequality and various social ills. They are alike in being part of the fewer-holds-barred scene. I am not at all sure that inequality produces unpleasantness but I do accept that it has correlations with it. I accept such things as part of the culture which has given me Mick Jagger and Tom Stoppard, and Hollywood and Google, let alone Purcell and Shakespeare. Put it this way: I am neither Calvinist nor Catholic by temperament. But I do try to be a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead. (Since that takes courage, I often fail.)

I do see that we have to have an argument about equality. But it is not remotely a done deal that the egalitarians will win it. Books like The Spirit Level will have their work cut out when confronted with the bloody-mindedness of the Brit.

Let's try and be nicer
I would not much mind if this society decided that it wanted to be more Scandinavian. This is a little circular. If it was democratically decided that England would be happier if it were more socialist, or more egalitarian at any rate, then I would have to accept that there was a powerful utilitarian argument for going in that direction. I am a right-winger but not because I think it is absolutely important as a matter of principle that people not build socialist societies.

I am a right-winger partly because it makes me happy to think that socialism would not work for the British (or the English anyway), and partly because I do actually believe that it is good for the British (or the English anyway) to explore a non-Scandinavian way of life. I feel that someone ought to, as a matter of variety. Insofar as this society is dysfunctional, I do not have much faith that making it more equal would sort out the problem.

A big chunk of my belief here is to do with my assessment of what British people are like and what they want. And a lot of that has to do with what I would like them to be like. They could prove me wrong and break no rule or principle as they did so. I don't think the Danes or Finns are wrong about life just because they find being more socialist than us suits them.

And we could try egalitarianism too
Oddly, the argument that more equality might not make much difference to our social dysfunction (such as it is) doesn't block the case that we should be more egalitarian. There might be some merit in being more egalitarian even if being so wouldn't make the kind of differences that Wilkinson and Pickett suppose. It's obvious that we'd all be happier if the poor were richer.

But I am also open to the idea that both the rich and the poor might benefit from the rich being less rich. There may be something socially or humanly redemptive or improving in egalitarianism simply and rather in the terms adumbrated by this books' authors in some of their pages. I don't even mind the inner core of their case: that people think and find that equality matters in and of itself. I don't really think it's true, but the next generation may experiment in that direction and they may even make the experiment work. In short, they could prove me wrong.

I do think that this core argument sits ill with the wider arguments in the book. I have more sympathy with the book's argument that inequality upsets people than with the book's wider arguments that inequality causes lots of other miseries.

For my part, I will continue to argue that egalitarianism may not be a virtue in itself. I will argue that those who let inequality get them down ought to address their own insecurities rather than society's inequities. And I will continue to argue that the egalitarians are barking up the wrong tree when they say inequality causes all the misery in the world.

A modest underclass proposal
One of the reasons I disagree with this sort of book is that I think we need to invest heavily in the children at the very bottom of our society. I don't mind if we invest less (and exhort or lead more) elsewhere.

I can also rescue my reputation as a right-winger by saying that I am not worried by the inequality the very disadvantaged children experience, but by the absolute rigidity of the awfulness of the circumstances in which they find themselves. I don't think that has much to do with their poverty or their distance from the top of society. Their parents are not much poorer than their neighbours who are doing much better. I doubt these kids' income is the cause of their being stuck, often amongst loving people who are useless to them but who have no habit of work.

I am not nearly so worried by the many people in our society who choose to be intellectually idle and ignorant and fat and violent and drunk but are usually in work of some kind. Most of those people may be shifted into a more interesting condition by changing fashions and by generational change. But the young at the very bottom of society seem to be in a much worse condition of stasis which we have to do something about.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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