Book Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

To review this book requires some caution. Those of you who know me will be familiar with my politics, knowing it to be distinctly left-wing. As such, I came to this book with an acknowledged predisposition to agree with the premise, especially the subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone. The caution needed then, is to attempt something resembling neutrality (an absurd concept, of course!) and avoid confirmation bias. From the outset, I will state that it is my intention to read a counter-argument to that presented in this book, much as I have done with my reviews of books relating to the New Perspective on Paul. To that extent, I have purchased, but not yet read, The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon.

The first thing that strikes you about The Spirit Level is the abundance of scatter graphs. If you don’t like these, then this book will annoy you. The authors have drawn together multiple studies (all of which are referenced) to demonstrate a number of different factors that are affected by inequality in society.

But how might one measure ‘inequality’? Though an intuitive concept, it seems like a hard one to make empirical – a bit like ‘justice’ or ‘faithfulness’. This is done by looking at the difference between the top 20% of incomes and the lowest 20% (presumably including those with no income, though this is not stated explicitly). The opening thesis is that in economically developed countries, economic growth has reached the limits of what can improve living standards. So by looking at 1st world countries (excluding tax havens) they look at how different epidemiological measures change with differing levels of income inequality within that given society. As well as looking at a list of roughly 23 countries (not all had data available for all measures), they also looked at the 50 states that make up the USA.

The text is basically a commentary and expansion on the scatter graphs, each of which has a line of best fit. What I noticed is how tentative some of them were. The samples included a lot of outliers, making the correlation far from convincing in some specific graphs. In others, the correlation was much stronger.

At the start of the text, the authors make the very correct point that correlation doesn’t imply causation; surely the mantra of any statistician. However, about 2/3rds of the way through, the book changes tone. It turns away from the giving of the evidence that developed societies with greater income inequality tend to have more social problems into a discussion on causality. This, however, was a bit a hand-wavey exercise. Though it makes for interesting reading, I don’t think the authors did the best job that they could have done and I am yet to be convinced of the causality argument, depending as it does on supposition and broad generalisations.

However, they carry on regardless, working on the basis of that correlation does correspond to causation. The remainder of the book is a sort of sketch manifesto on how to make society more equal. They are quick to rule out changes in legislation on the basis that any incoming government which is in favour of greater inequality could easily reverse any progress made. Instead they propose employee ownership of companies. The idea then is that executives’ pay would be easier to cap to a sensible multiple of either the lowest or the average wage of the employees. As interesting as this idea is, it does seem to operate on the level of a single company wholly operating in a single jurisdiction. Of course, most large companies are multinationals, with employees spread across the globe, being paid different rates and in different currencies. I think they were too quick to rule out progressive measures such a more equitable tax system or a maximum wage, but that’s just my view.

It’s well worth a read, whether or not you agree with the general premise. I don’t think they made the best case that they could. The end section where they respond to some of their critics is a little weak. That’s not to say the direction they’re headed in is wrong. I think there is an abundance of evidence presented to show that societies that have greater income equality do have more desirable qualities. I think it would be a total nonsense to argue for greater inequality, though there may be many less empirical ways of thinking of inequality which the authors have not considered.

This is not the answer to the problems in developed countries, but it is a step in the correct (i.e. left) direction.


2 responses to “Book Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

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