The Spirit Level

In: Uncategorized

5 Mar 2009

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published today in Britain by Allen Lane, looks set to become an influential addition to the enormous and dubious growth sceptic canon. The two authors are proving popular on the circuit for such things including appearances on the Moral Maze with me yesterday, Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, Nightwaves on Radio 3 as well as a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts today. They were also reviewed in the Economist.

The authors present the book as a technical – that is non-political – book on the facts of social inequality. Their central thesis is that what matters in the developed economies is not poverty but inequality. Better to have more equal societies, such as Sweden or Japan, than highly unequal ones, such as America or Britain.

Judging by what I have heard and read so far, it has several weaknesses. These include:

• Lumping together disparate forms of data in dubious composite “indices”. As far as I can gather these include more subjective factors (such as “happiness”) with more objective ones (such as life expectancy).

• They miss the extent to which many factors, such as mental illness, are largely socially defined. So, for example, the definition of mental illness in many western societies have been substantially widened in recent years.

• They seem to rely on primate studies for at least part of their evidence in relation to status. In its review of the book the Economist moves shamelessly from talking about poor Indian children to discussing baboons in the course of one paragraph: “Low-caste Indian children do worse on cognitive tests if they must state their identities beforehand. High-status baboons bred in captivity show elevated levels of stress hormones and become ill more often when they are moved to groups where they no longer dominate.”

In any case they draw sweeping growth sceptic conclusions which are clearly political – despite their protestations – and not justified by the data. The Economist quotes the two authors as arguing that: “We have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us.”

Much of my work is focused on refuting such ideas. For example, I argue that the challenge of climate change and an ageing population can only be met with substantially more resources – and that means economic growth. That is leaving aside the benefits to individuals being wealthier in the West and the still enormous challenge of development in the third world.

I have also argued the meaning of the demand for equality has been fundamentally transformed with the acceptance of the idea that there is no alternative to the market. It used to be a demand for more – for realising the human potential – whereas it is now typically a demand for less. I have written about this before in a 2006 article for spiked on Polly Toynbee (who has also just had a paperback edition of her latest book on “greed” in Britain published). However, I plan to extend the thesis considerably in my book.