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Keywords: Politics, economics, social policy

Title: The Spirit Level Delusion

Author: Christopher Snowdon

Publisher: Democracy Institute/Little Dice

ISBN: 0956226515

 

On the face of it 'The Spirit Level', is one of those ground-breaking books that deserves to change the world. Written by two politically engaged scientists (Richard Wilkinson and Rose Pickett), it purports to provide empirical and unimpeachable evidence that societies with greater levels of equality are healthier. No matter what the metric, whether it's mental health, crime or charitable giving, the book provides statistical evidence to back up the assertion that more equal societies are better. As one would expect, publication of the book was seized upon by left-wing activists, politicians and journalists. Unfortunately it appears that much of the book does not bear detailed scrutiny, as Christopher Snowdon makes clear in this concise and incisive refutation.

In chapter after chapter, Snowdon examines the claims in the Spirit Level, examining the data, testing the hypothesis and comparing to other studies. In many cases the claimed for correlations between inequality and particular metrics of social health disappear into noise, statistical artefact or are reversed. In some cases the data is widely scattered and the correlations are down to one or two outliers. In other cases later datasets make the correlations disappear or change direction. It is not just the choice of country or dataset, in other cases it is the choice of the metric itself that is suspect. For example in the chapter that looks at the relationship between crime and inequality the Spirit Level focuses not on levels of crime but on rates of imprisonment. This is a bizarre choice as rates of imprisonment is most obviously related to cultural norms as reflected in sentencing policy rather that directly related to crimes committed. Snowdon carefully disentangles the available data to show that once criminality is brought into the picture the correlation with inequality disappears.

It is not just the choice of data that is faulted. Snowdon also points to the confusion between correlation and causation. A and B may be correlated, but that does not tell us whether there is a causative relationship, nor what the direction of causation may be. For example, there is a correlation between ice cream sales and murder rate, but that does not mean that ice cream causes murder (though both are in fact correlated with another variable - temperature). In the case of the Spirit Level the assumption always is that wealth inequality causes social changes. Forgot other variables or historical or cultural factors, the reasons that more equal societies (Nordic countries, for example) are better than non-equal societies (the Portugal, the UK or the US) is simply because of differences in wealth. This is so obviously fallacious that it is hard to believe that anyone could seriously think otherwise. But it is clear that the need to support the underlying egalitarian thesis outweighs any natural scepticism.

Frederick Hayek warned of the dangers of scientism - the idea that we could apply spurious scientific sounding reasoning to social problems. This is scientism writ large. The fact that the Spirit Level is full of charts, tables of data and references to correlations and statistical significance is enough to convince some people that this is science and therefore cannot be open to dispute. To the true believer, scientism provides the ammunition to attack opponents and sceptics as being unscientific, lacking integrity or politically motivated - which is exactly what has happened with this case. All of this is not just of academic interest of course. There are direct policy indications that arise from the Spirit Level. Wilkinson and Pickett make no bones about the political implications from their work. To address the health, educational, social and other issues that are caused by inequalities in income one must obviously redistribute wealth in order to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. This means an increase in the size and scope of the welfare state beyond all else.

In the latest edition of their book, Wilkinson and Pickett claim to refute the refutations, including Snowdon. It is instructive to read the carefully phrased responses that they provide, and which Snowdon has responded to in an additional chapter of this book, which is available as a PDF download. What emerges is another set of evasions and half-truths and for those with the time and the means to do it, it is worth following up some of the references that Wilkinson and Pickett provide and those that Snowdon does. It has to be said, that Spirit Level does not come out of this well, and that the criticisms of Snowdon (and others) hold water.

For those that follow the politics of climate change this should all sound eerily familiar. Wilkinson and Pickett claim to be representing a 'consensus' view that does not exist, data is massaged to conform to a pre-defined message, opponents are labelled as industry stooges or as being unscientific and on and on. It is no surprise that some of those most enthusiastic about the Spirit Level are also enthusiastic supporters of anthropogenic global warming. For a larger population, particularly those lacking the skills necessary to dig below the surface, the claims of Wilkinson and Pickett will be accepted at face value and the responses of Snowdon and others will simply be ignored or written off as being politically motivated and therefore not valid.

Christopher Snowdon has written a well-argued, well-written and convincing rebuttal to the claims of The Spirit Level, but it is unlikely to make a dent in the sales or the acclaim of the original book. It's a shame, but for those who harbour a degree of scepticism then this is essential reading.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2011. Site © London Book Review 2011. Published May 28 2011