I haven’t read The Spirit Level yet, but in his last book Ill Fares the Land, the late Tony Judt quotes from it extensively. The authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett base their work on what they call ‘evidence-based politics,’ an approach I also favour (as opposed to the theology that generally passes for analysis on the left). That the book has had an impact is confirmed by the fact that recently a host of conservative and neoconservative think-tanks (led by the raving-mad Policy Exchange) have launched a concerted campaign against it. Here is an interview with the authors in which they explain the argument of the book followed by Robert Booth’s report in the Guardian about the right-wing assault on their work.
Bestseller with cross-party support arguing that equality is better for all comes under attack from thinktanks
It was an idea that seemed to unite the political classes. Everyone from David Cameron to Labour leadership candidates Ed and David Miliband have embraced a book by a pair of low-profile North Yorkshire social scientists called The Spirit Level.
Their 274-page book, a mix of “eureka!” insights and statistical analysis, makes the arresting claim that income inequality is the root of pretty much every social ill – murder, obesity, teenage pregnancy, depression. Inequality even limits life expectancy itself, they said.
The killer line for politicians seeking to attract swing voters was that greater equality is not just better for the poor but for the middle classes and the rich too.
Its authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, proclaimed their work a new kind of “evidence-based politics” and it has sold 36,000 copies in the UK, more than Barack Obama’s Change We Can Believe In.
Cameron quoted the book in a pre-election address envisioning the “big society”, the former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw took it on holiday and Michael Gove, the education secretary, said it was “a fantastic analysis”.
For a book which concludes that either taxes must rise on the rich or their incomes must fall to increase equality, it was an astonishing level of cross-party support.
But this summer, something has snapped and if The Spirit Level were a punchbag, the stuffing would be coming out at the seams. A posse of rightwing institutes has laid into the work with a wave of brutal attacks.
Professor Wilkinson has admitted that an idea he hoped would escape the “leftwing ghetto” to transcend party politics and make Britain a happier, less-divided, more sociable, healthier and safer place has been made unpalatable for Conservatives by “wreckers” from the right.
Following George Osborne’s June budget, which warned of spending cuts so deep most observers are resigned to growing income inequality, a pair of the Conservative party’s favourite thinktanks took aim.
With the success of the cuts programme so important to the government’s credibility, The Spirit Level’s argument that any increase in inequality means more crime, poorer education, more disease and violence was a dangerous idea to let stand.
So on 7 July, the Taxpayers Alliance, a campaign group for lower taxes and lower spending which is also bankrolled by wealthy Conservative donors, branded the book “flimsy” and issued a damning report.
“On almost no measure does the central claim of the Spirit Level, that income inequality decreases life expectancy, stand up to scrutiny,” said Matthew Sinclair, TPA research director. “In some area the authors appear to be promoting utterly absurd ideas.”
Just 24 hours later Policy Exchange, often described as Cameron’s favourite thinktank, weighed in with its own 123-page assault called Beware False Prophets.
Its author, sociologist Peter Saunders, said The Spirit Level could “contaminate an important area of political debate with wonky statistics and spurious correlations … Very little of Wilkinson and Pickett’s statistical evidence actually stands up, and their causal argument is full of holes”.
Wilkinson, an experienced academic with professorships at the universities of Nottingham, London and York, branded Saunders’s attack “a hatchet job” and his analysis of the effect of ethnicity “racist”, a charge denied by Saunders.
Right wing columnists weighed in too. This week Toby Young called it “junk food for the brain” in the Spectator. Ed West, in the Daily Telegraph, said “the real agenda is massive government expansion”.
Wilkinson was shocked by what he believes is part of a worrying trend in political discourse, also happening in the US, where a few people, often attached to right wing institutes, have set themselves up as professional wreckers of ideas.
“Do they even believe what they are saying?” he said today. “I suppose it doesn’t matter if their claims are right or wrong; it is about sowing doubt in people’s minds.”
The authors fear the attacks have scuppered any chance of removing the inequality debate “from the left wing ghetto”.
Wilkinson said: “It is now something for the left and we would rather have avoided that. People on the right will feel relieved knowing they don’t have to treat this seriously and will be happy to know it has been rubbished.”
The Taxpayers Alliance said it knew about the imminent Policy Exchange report, but denies acting in concert with its fellow thinktank. But the two reports taken with the 170-page Spirit Level Delusion, published in May by writer Christopher Snowdon with the Democracy Institute, a rightwing thinktank in Washington DC, meant Wilkinson and Pickett were on the ropes.
Snowdon said he spent six months drafting his attack on the Spirit Level after he “realised it was influential and informing debate” and because he believes it is fundamentally flawed.
He does not believe that The Spirit Level’s claim that the psychological effects on society of income inequality are so great to cause widespread social ills. “I don’t think people outside the intelligensia worry about inequality,” Snowdon said. “The working class don’t worry about how much Wayne Rooney is earning.”
The attacks challenge the Spirit Level’s interpretation and selection of statistics in concluding the causal link between inequality and social ills and dispute Wilkinson and Pickett’s dismissal of other factors, including race and culture, as possible explanations for the relationship.
As Labour enters the autumn conference season searching for a big idea, as well as a leader to unite around, Wilkinson retains hope that his idea could still shape the Labour leadership campaign. Gordon Brown cancelled two invitations for Wilkinson and Pickett to explain their findings to the Cabinet at the end of last year and again in January, but David Miliband, the favourite to become the Labour leader, is a fan.
“The moral case against unjustified inequalities has always been strong, and motivated me and millions of others around the world,” Miliband said. “What is arresting about Richard Wilkinson’s work is his concern with a different argument – the self interest argument. It is in some ways counterintuitive. But it has profound implications.”
What the book says
The authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, argue that most of the important health and social problems of the rich world are more common in unequal societies. Using data from 23 rich countries and 50 US states, they found problems are anything from three to 10 times as common in more unequal societies. Again and again, the Scandinavian countries and Japan are at one end of the scale as the most equal, while the US, UK and Australia are at the other.
A key explanation is the psychological impact of inequality which, they say, causes stress and anxiety. For example, maths and literacy scores are lower in more unequal countries, affected by the issues of health, anxiety and depression and consequent drug and alcohol use. The way parents react to relative poverty also affects the way they treat their children, affecting education.
Violence rises in more unequal societies too. Following psychological studies that say men have an incentive to achieve as high a status as possible because their sexual competitiveness depends on it, the authors explain that men use violence when their status is threatened, and more so when there is little status to defend. “The association between inequality and violence is strong and consistent. The evolutionary importance of shame and humiliation provides a plausible explanation of why more unequal societies suffer more violence.” Suicide is the only social ill that increases in more equal societies, they say.
Crucially, the authors argue that the evidence shows that all levels of society benefit from more equality, not just the poorest. On health, “at almost any level of income, it’s better to live in a more equal place”. Whether rich or poor, inequality causes stress, which causes biological reactions that put pressure on the body and increase illness.
Arguably the most profound conclusion is that economic growth among rich countries has finished its work because it is no longer increasing life expectancy and the only way to do that is to better share the wealth we have.
In its most simple terms, the book yearns for society to celebrate humankind’s ability to co-operate and support one another. Are we fighters – which increases inequality? Or are we lovers? The authors say we don’t have to see society, as the philosopher Hobbes saw it, as naturally in conflict – “every man against every man” – owing to rivalry for scarce resources.
Instead, “human beings have a unique potential to be each other’s best source of co-operation, learning, love and assistance of every kind”.