Rob de Vries (Imperial College London) finds reasons to be uncertain about The Spirit Level’s claims on inequality.
In his earlier post discussing The Spirit Level, Ben said that we’d return to the subject of whether the books’ claims were actually true or not. It’s a highly fraught question, but with Wilkinson and Pickett saying they’ll no longer respond to non-peer reviewed critics, I may fearlessly address it, secure in the knowledge that they won’t contradict me.
The bold subtitle of The Spirit Level is ‘Why more equal societies almost always do better’. The most obvious first question to ask of this is ‘Do they really?’: do more equal societies really have better health and social outcomes than less equal ones? The book makes a persuasive case that this is so. Unequal societies are shown to perform worse on measure after measure
Some critics have made it quite clear that they think it’s a deliberate trick, that Wilkinson and Pickett have carefully limited themselves to a selection of countries that best show the relationship they want. The authors are trying to show that inequality is bad, so they choose equal countries with good outcomes like Sweden and Norway, and compare them to unequal countries with poor outcomes like the U.S. and the U.K. This is a fair criticism up to a point. Whether deliberately intended to or not, which data you choose to include can have a big effect on the results you eventually find. Having said that, it doesn’t seem to explain what’s going on here. Wilkinson and Pickett have always been consistent in the criteria they use to select countries (see the second to last paragraph on page 2) , and studies by other authors on other countries and on U.S. states confirm the basic relationship.
If more equal places really do tend to do better, the next question is ‘Why?’. Is it, as Wilkinson and Pickett claim, because inequality in society causes stress and social breakdown? Or is there another explanation?
It’s been almost 20 years since Wilkinson first suggested that inequality was harmful in and of itself. In that time many (many) counter explanations have been suggested, some more plausible than others. There are certainly more than I can address here, but most cluster around three main arguments.
I’ll start with the simplest but the most charged – race. This is an argument that I imagine is more often thought than voiced but it
‘s impetus is the fact that the more equal, better faring countries are also the least ethnically diverse. Countries like Sweden, Norway and Japan have quite low populations of ethnic minorities. Whereas countries like the U.K. and the U.S. are much more ethnically mixed. The same is true of U.S. states that are socially better off . The conclusion that follows that it is ethnic diversity, not inequality, that is the cause of the social ills highlighted in The Spirit Level. Wilkinson has recently labelled this argument ‘racist’, and that it may be. Happily it is also probably wrong. A series of papers over the last few years have debunked the idea to (almost) everyone’s satisfaction. A fact to which the experts at the Policy Exchange seem surprisingly oblivious.
The next argument might be the one I hear most often from people who’ve just read (or heard about) The Spirit Level. I’ll also admit it was my first thought when I heard the theory. The argument goes that of course more unequal countries have worse health and more social problems because they have more poor people, who get sick more often, commit more crimes, and so on. This is
Let’s say you’re persuaded by that, and you’re satisfied that poverty isn’t the answer. There is still one glaring problem with The Spirit Level’s thesis, and that is culture. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that inequality makes people less cooperative, less trusting of each other, less generous and altruistic. In effect they are saying that inequality is a driver of national culture. It is the agent and changing cultural norms are the illness. Take a healthy society, they are saying, and introduce some inequality-causing agent (call it Thatcherium) and it will become unhealthy. The problem is that it could easily be the other way around. A change in national culture, like an increased emphasis on selfishness and individuality, could cause increased inequality through a diminished public appetite for egalitarianism. In grossly exaggerated terms, people in places like Japan and Scandinavia are not trusting and selfless because their countries are equal; their countries are equal because the people there are trusting and selfless.
Wilkinson and Pickett would ask why people in such places are the way they are, and point the finger back to inequality, rather than historical accident, as the root cause. They might be right to do so. There may even be a vicious cycle: from inequality to selfishness and through anti-egalitarian policies back to more inequality. The problem is that we can’t tell with the data we have. For all the relationships in The Spirit Level, both hypotheses work equally well. That’s why Wilkinson is wrong to compare his work to that on smoking or climate change. The data are in on those topics and there is no big alternative explanation that fits them.
Whether it’s inequality changing culture, culture changing inequality, or both, is not a fundamentally
. There’s no need to simply take their word on this as most of the data they use in their analyses are publicly available, for example from the World Bank or the U.S. Census Bureau