The summer holidays are upon us and like most people I’ve been taking the opportunity to do a bit of light reading. I’ve put aside the heavy tomes I’ve been wrestling with for the best part of the year and accumulated a vast pile of trashy paperbacks. So far, my favourite ‘beach read’ is The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Talk about junk food for the brain! Its argument, in a nutshell, is that there’s a causal link between inequality and social dysfunction. The more unequal a society, the higher its levels of mental illness, obesity, teenage births, homicides, infant mortality, etc. For that reason, claim the authors, we should struggle to reduce the gap between the richest 20 per cent and the bottom 20 per cent of wage earners. It’s bunkum, obviously, but that hasn’t stopped the intellectual titans of the left (Johann Hari, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) from acclaiming it as a modern-day Wealth of Nations.
The Spirit Level was first published in 2009 and since then it has been subjected to considerable scrutiny. One line of attack, spearheaded by the sociologist Peter Saunders, is to question the authors’ empirical evidence. In a paper for Policy Exchange, he examined 20 of Wilkinson and Pickett’s statistical claims and found that 14 were invalid. Of the remainder, only one stood up to analysis, namely, the link between income in-equality and infant mortality. ‘Contrary to their claims,’ he concluded, ‘income in-equality does not explain international homicide rates, childhood conflict, women’s status, foreign aid donations, life expectancy, adult obesity, childhood obesity, literacy … or social mobility rates.’
Another fusillade, this one delivered by Christopher Snowdon of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, involves distinguishing between correlation and causation. Even if we accept that there’s a statistical correlation between inequality and various social evils, it doesn’t follow that there’s a causal relationship. In one example, Snowdon takes the data on suicide rates and shows that there’s a stronger correlation between suicide and recycling than there is with inequality.
To be fair, Wilkinson and Pickett have answers to most of these criticisms, albeit not very satisfactory ones. To my mind, the key issue is not the reliability of their data, but the conclusions they draw. Suppose we accept, for the sake of argument, that in-equality does cause various forms of ill health. That doesn’t mean we ought to equalise incomes. The problem with ‘evidence-based’ arguments for particular social policies is that they presuppose the political combatants share a common goal — in this case, maximising public health. But that isn’t the case. For most conservatives, a certain level of dysfunction is an acceptable price to pay for our social and economic freedoms. To pretend that such differences can be elided, and that important policy decisions can be made on the basis of ‘evidence’ alone, is to trivialise political debate.
To illustrate this, take a solution to the problem of inequality that Wilkinson and Picket don’t consider. One way to tackle it would be to take the poorest 20 per cent of UK wage earners and forcibly expatriate them to an uninhabited island. If, as Wilkinson and Pickett claim, there’s a causal link between income inequality and social dysfunction, this measure would significantly reduce ill health among the remaining 80 per cent, since the gap between the richest and the poorest would shrink. Not only that, but the wellbeing of the expatriated 20 per cent would also improve since they’d now be living in a more equal society. A key argument of The Spirit Level is that it is not discrepancies in the average level of income between countries that account for different levels of public health, but the degree of income inequality.
Such a draconian measure would be monstrous, but it’s hard to see how Wilkinson and Pickett could object if their sole aim is to maximise ‘wellbeing’. The problem, of course, is that forcibly expatriating 12 million people would grossly violate their rights — and the rights to life, liberty and property are among the things that have to be weighed in the balance when assessing the merits of equality. To pretend that a purely ‘rational’ appraisal of the facts leads inevitably to egalitarianism is intellectually dishonest and one of many reasons this book belongs in the trash pile.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 14, 2010