Charles Moore reviews ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and finds that it is more a socialist tract than an objective analysis of poverty.
By Charles Moore
Published: 6:21AM GMT 09 Feb 2010
This book was such a success when it came out last year that it has just been republished in a new edition. Its argument is that inequality has grown in the Western world, and that this is bad, not just for the poor, but for the whole of society. It is subtitled “Why equality is better for everyone”.
Perhaps because of its clever title, the book is now widely referred to in public argument. It has helped inspire Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill. It is alleged to be helping change the minds of David Cameron’s Conservatives, moving them towards a concern for equality, though not one which is imposed by a central state.
Its method of persuasion is to present itself as non-ideological. The authors have previously conducted long studies of “health inequalities”. “Our training in epidemiology means that our methods are those used to trace the causes of diseases in populations.” They have worked with “evidence-based medicine”, they say; now they want to create “evidence-based politics”.
This turns out to be a bogus way of arguing. Their case is not evidence-based, but evidence-decorated. It starts with the unargued assumption that inequality is the cause of almost every misery, and then seeks, often interestingly but certainly not scientifically, to illustrate its point. The epidemiology comparison is artful because it makes the reader believe we can stop inequality just as we stopped smallpox. But of course we cannot. This is a political tract, and, underneath the graphs and the health-talk, a surprisingly traditional socialist one.
The book seeks to show that inequality produces poor health, more murder, more mental instability, less trust and too much “chronic mobilisation of energy in the form of glucose into the bloodstream”, resulting in obesity. Human society is better when we resemble bonobos, the authors claim: apparently these creatures solve problems via mutual masturbation, whereas nasty, rough chimps fight for status. Naturalists inform me, by the way, that bonobos are extremely stupid.
The basis for much of the argument is that “economic growth has finished its work”. We’re rich, is the idea, so it is time to settle down to share the spoils differently. This is an economic version of the old “end of history” theory, and it is being spectacularly disproved by the credit crunch.
The graphs deployed in this book “prove” that, of all developed countries, it is the United States which has the worst inequalities, with Britain not far behind. The “best” countries are the Scandinavian ones and, more unexpectedly, Japan. The Japanese are much thinner than the Americans, have a much smaller range of incomes, put very few people in prison and live longer.
Because the authors have decided that inequality is not a symptom of other things, but the root of all evil, they are incurious about why Japan and Sweden should be so different from the United States. One important factor, surely, is ethnic and cultural homogeneity. The Swedes have been able to develop a trusted welfare system because they are a country with a small population composed of people with a common religious tradition, language and way of life. Now that there are very large numbers of Muslims in Scandinavia, it will be interesting to see if such a consensus can be maintained.
In Japan, the “social capital” of which the authors approve is carefully guarded by two facts that they presumably do not like. One is that married women are highly unequal with men, and stay at home. The other is that Japanese keep out foreigners, and make sure such immigrants as they tolerate have few rights. That may be cosy for the Japanese, but is it a model which helps the global fight against inequality?
If you think about it, most of the inequalities in the United States derive from the fact that it lets in millions of new people every year. They come because they believe it offers opportunity. They will not all succeed but they are, broadly speaking, right. When such people start out, they are usually poor. It is inevitable there will be a huge gap in American society between those who have just got across the Mexican border, and those who have already “made it”. But that need not be a problem so long as the opportunity is real. The wretched of the world still seem to think that it is.
“After the fall of the Berlin wall,” the authors lament, “inequality increased in the former East Germany.” The implication is that good old, Communist, Russian-colonised East Germany was a better place. But why was there a wall there? To keep unwilling people in. If America ever has to build a wall, it is to keep eager people out. Its immigrants do not seem to fear inequality.
The authors are surely right when they say the general tendency of extreme inequality is to make people fear and mistrust one another more. That is dangerous for social cohesion and bad for the soul. “Systems of economic relations,” they say, “are systems of social relations”. Yes, but the problem is not that some people earn much more than some others, but that an underclass has been created which does not maintain economic relations with the rest of society at all. Worklessness subsidised by welfare is what really keeps people down.
Published in The Telegraph: