THE SPIRIT LEVEL-IS IT A DELUSION?

The Spirit Level sees unequal societies as the unhappiest

But Spirit level Delusion says its hypotheses  are just  plain wrong

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The left have been animated for a while by the incredible popularity and ubiquity of The Spirit Level. This tract from  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett   claims that more equal societies do better at  just about everything, backed by much data and graphs comparing variables between countries and drawing conclusions from them.  On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.  The authors  give themselves a huge challenge in making sense of so much data, which is impressive, although critics  such as Christopher  Snowden in The Spirit Level Delusion’ claim they have failed and  that the way they have used data produces many absurdities and false linkages. Nick Cohen of the Observer however   has said that Labour is energised by “The Spirit Level, a book which is turning into a cross between a manifesto and a call to arms. At one Left-wing meeting recently, a speaker wished everyone in the country could read its argument that societies more equal than Britain enjoy better physical and mental health, lower homicide rates, fewer drug problems, fewer teenage births, higher maths and literacy scores, higher standards of child wellbeing, lower obesity rates and fewer people in prison.( Although Wilkinson and Pickett concede that suicide rates are higher in more equal countries). If they could just grasp that, he said, then they would see that combating inequality was good for everyone.” His was not a lone voice. David Miliband and other senior Labour politicians have declared their admiration for its authors and their take on inequality.

One  possible problem with The Spirit Level is that you  can’t really, with much conviction, separate out all the variables when comparing statistics from different countries (just how reliable are these statistics anyway-are they collected and collated  to a uniform standard?). To demonstrate, the author of the Spirit Level Delusion, Christopher Snowdon, shows a scatter graph that proves recycling causes suicide. By fact-checking the book’s statistics and reviewing the scientific literature, Snowden argues that in fact there is no correlation between income inequality and a country’s health, happiness and well-being. In short, the hypothesis in The Spirit Level is, he says, based on selective evidence and flawed reasoning. A report from Policy Exchange  Beware False Prophets re-examines the empirical claims made in The Spirit Level and finds that of the 20 statistical claims made in it, 14 are spurious or invalid and in only one case (the association internationally between infant mortality and income inequality) does the evidence unambiguously support their hypothesis.

Given the fact that well- being and the pursuit of happiness appears to be  moving up the political agenda perhaps it is worth looking at both books before coming to your own conclusion.

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2 thoughts on “THE SPIRIT LEVEL-IS IT A DELUSION?

  1. It would be helpful for someone to post the most important links to this debate: critical reviews of each book, etc.

    Rational people on both Left and Right want their political views to be at least congruent with reality. For those of us on the Right, The Spirit Level is a challenge. We should not flinch from examining its results. My own prejudices (before having read either the book or Snowden’s critique) is that cause and effect have to be disentangled: the American left used to point to Sweden and say, “If we had a welfare state like theirs, we would be like them”; and the Right used to counter, “If we had a population like theirs (all Swedes) we would be like them”.

  2. Clearly there are problems with some of the original research, but similarly there are significant problems with the criticisms.

    Initial evidence for: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/why/evidence
    Evidence against: http://spiritleveldelusion.blogspot.com/
    Rebuttal of evidence against: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/docs/hughnobletslrevisited.pdf
    Review by Joseph Rowntree of both arguments: http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/income-inequality-health-social-problems

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