24 Aug 2010

The Spirit Level’s Political Wobble: The Inequality Debate Rages On

by George Irvin

Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone is an admirable book and has generated a long-overdue debate about the high social costs of inequality. Inequality is not just about the poor staying poor; it is about the huge leap in income and wealth of the rich, or ‘super rich’ as they are now referred to, so it is hardly surprising that the book has been attacked on statistical grounds by several right-wing think-tanks. But the right-wing attack is largely waffle. If there is a weakness in this book, it is that having correctly identified the malady, the authors are too hesitant to set out a political agenda for the cure – redistribution.

First, let’s get the methodological argument straight. The authors have quite correctly limited their sample to 23 of the world’s richest (mainly OECD) countries and backed their findings with state-level data from the United States. A quick glance at the appendices shows how meticulously sources have been cited – after all the senior author, Richard Wilkinson, has published two previous books on the subject and has been working on the data for 30 years. Moreover, those who argue that some of the correlations are spurious are on shaky ground. For example, one hostile publication (from Policy Exchange) claims ‘… the (more equal) Scandinavian nations routinely appear at one end of many of their graphs, and the (less equal) Anglo nations often appear at the other. But these differences probably reflect a deeper divergence between Nordic and Anglo cultures…’[1] Perhaps Policy Exchange believes that all those blond, blue-eyed Nordics simply have more egalitarian cultural genes?

Wilkinson and Pickett are careful to offer nothing more than graphic descriptive statistics accompanied by the suggestion that there is an association between the variables; eg, the more unequal a society, the greater the crime rate is likely to be. And although formal statistical inference is rightly eschewed, the connection between inequality and crime remains pretty obvious – it is certainly not a spurious ‘sharks and ice-cream sales’-type correlation.[2]

Nor can critics like Christopher Snowdon be taken seriously when they argue that ‘the working class doesn’t worry about what Wayne Rooney is earning’. As one astute Guardian letter writer noted, perhaps Snowdon should have listened to England football fans when their humiliated team returned from the World Cup in South Africa.

A more serious critique is that advanced by David Runciman. While Runciman is essentially sympathetic to Wilkinson and Pickett, his case is that greater equality is not as unambiguously good for us all as the book’s title appears to claim.[3] Each of the points on each graph represents an arithmetic mean (or average); hidden beneath the average is a distribution of outcomes for different social classes. While infant mortality across all social classes is better in Sweden than in the UK, implying that the rich in the UK would be better off [in infant mortality terms] moving to Sweden even if it meant giving up their wealth, this is not the case for all social variables. As Runciman correctly notes, while the average literacy score may be higher in egalitarian Finland than in the UK, it does not follow that rich kids in the UK have worse literacy scores than poor kids in Finland; i.e., rich kids in the UK would not be unambiguously better off being poor in Finland.

Strictly speaking, The Spirit Level does not show that equality is unambiguously better for everybody. Ruciman’s conclusion is telling:

‘This is why the difference between ‘almost everyone’ and ‘everyone on average’ matters so much: politics. If it is almost everyone who would benefit from a more equal society, then this is an encouragement to solidarity across social boundaries, so that joint action to remedy the problem might be possible. But if it is everyone on average, then this can go along with an absence of solidarity and the hardening of divisions, because the disadvantages may be so unequally distributed.’

Some will take the above as a mere quibble, perhaps spurred on by the authors’ determination to convince the world of the justice of their case. Doubtless, the authors are correct in arguing that the steeper the inequality gradient in rich countries, the greater the social cost in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime and incarceration rates, literacy scores and so forth. The obvious question is where we go from here – politically speaking, how do we reduce inequality? The final chapter of the book is entitled ‘Building the future’, but it is precisely here that the authors’ determination weakens.

It is not that Wilkinson and Pickett fail to recognise that the inequality gradient in countries like the US and the UK has steepened sharply since the 1970s; much less, that part of the explanation lies in the manner in which the Thatcher-Reagan revolution destroyed traditional industries and communities, greatly weakened trade unions and privatised and casualised much employment. They say this clearly, although arguably too briefly.[4] It is rather that their self-imposed goal of removing the inequality debate from the ghetto of left-wing politics is a bemusing.[5] One is entitled to ask ‘since when has the political right championed greater equality?’

Equality of opportunity based on a radical levelling of the playing field has always been one of the principal goals of the left. If anything has changed, it is that party politics in Britain (much like the US) has shifted so far rightward in the past generation that the left’s political space has constricted – witness the mass defection of the LibDems to conservative values, or the US Republican rejection of Obama’s bipartisan overtures. One would have thought that the authors would wish to extend this space, not desert it.

Equally puzzling is Wilkinson and Pickett’s view that greater equality will result not so much from state action – the authors are wary of concentrating power in the hands of the state – as from the gradual advance of democratic employee-ownership. While it is true that John Lewis in Britain is more equitably run than the common or garden capitalist venture, there is little evidence to suggest that employee-ownership, now called the social economy sector, is advancing more rapidly in the Anglo-Saxon world than, say, in (far more egalitarian) France. Apart from government bailouts of the financial services sector, what is selling fastest on this side of the channel is still mergers and takeovers by private equity firms; i.e., making a shed-full of dosh from asset stripping.

Perhaps the poverty of political response in Britain and the US is because the rapid spread of inequality in the past 20 years has left the losers too politically weak and unfocussed to take decisive action. No matter, The Spirit Level remains a supremely important book in helping to place inequality and its consequences at the top of a future social-democratic agenda. The point cannot be overstressed: Britain under the ConDems (and the US under a Republican Congress) will become far more unequal – the left must find a way of translating this compelling book into a political programme of redistribution.


[1] See P. Sauders (2010) ‘Beware False Prophets: equality, the good society and the Spirit Level’ London: The Policy Exchange.

[2] The reference is to Gary Young’s ‘Immigrants cause job losses? Like ice cream brings sharks’ The Guardian, 16 August 2010.

[3] See David Runciman ‘How messy it all is’, London Review of Books, vol 31, No 20, 22 October 2009.

[4] For a strong critique on this point, see G Hassan ‘The Fantasyland of ‘The Spirit Level’ and the Limitations of the Health and Well-Being Industry’, Open Democracy, 1 August 2010.

[5] See Robert Booth, ‘The Spirit Level: how ‘ideas wreckers’ turned book into political punchbag’ The Guardian, 14 August 2010.

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