Book Review: The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon

As I stated in my review of The Spirit Level, my intention was to read a counter-argument in order to get a more well-rounded view on the issues being discussed and thought through. As with that earlier review, I will also have to beware of my own potential bias, given my rather left-wing views. Having identified some flaws with detail of The Spirit Level, though whilst largely agreeing with the general drift, I approached this wondering if those same flaws would be picked up by Snowdon. Before purchasing the book, I didn’t do extensive research into the author’s background (neither did I do similarly with The Spirit Level), hoping, instead, that the evidence presented would be a sufficient basis upon which to build an informed opinion. Given the very premise of the book, I did not expect this to be in agreement with what Wilkinson & Pickett wrote, though I was interested in the approach taken, bearing in mind that it is probable that someone who sets out to write such a book has an existing prejudice against the values of fairness & equality which Wilkinson & Pickett are equally and oppositely biased towards.

Suspicions were first around before I even got to the first words of Snowdon. The foreword, written by someone called Patrick Basham from something called The Democracy Institute. This is a right-wing “think tank” that Basham founded and who appear to have been instrumental in getting this book written. The opening starts with praise for an earlier volume that Snowdon wrote in praise of the pro-smoking lobby. I have no hesitation in asserting that anyone who is in favour of smoking is seriously lacking in sound judgement. So the early impression of Snowdon and Basham was not positive. This was only the first paragraph. The rest of the foreword is a diatribe that seems to have been generated by some sort of ‘conservative clap-trap generator’.

Anyway, when Snowdon gets to writing, he doesn’t dive in straight away but looks at the methodology of the studies behind The Spirit Level. Key to the original book was the idea that economic growth had reached the limits of how it could benefit societies that were well-developed. In spite of the subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, the focus of the Spirit Level was not on all countries, but between economically developed studies. But Snowdon’s critique of the methodology results in him including some more countries than Wilkinson & Pickett used for their analyses. Interestingly, though, as a secondary measure in the original book, a comparison was made between different states of the USA. But Snowdon chooses to overlook this entirely and his book does nothing to attempt to discredit the evidence which came from this second set of data, relegating his ‘reason’ to an unconvincing footnote, inviting readers to visit a website which he set up.

He then progresses, chapter by chapter, to look at some of the specific studies carried out from The Spirit Level drew. Much of this is a fair enough critique, though as with the original, the conclusions reached are stated with greater affirmation than the evidence really justifies. So while Snowdon does a good job of casting doubt on some of the work done by Wilkinson & Pickett, he doesn’t get close to falsifying it. It is probably convincing for those who are already convinced, but it’s unlikely to win any converts.

Undermining his case is his misleading caricature of what The Spirit Level is all about. In several places, Snowdon tries to deceive his readers by supposing that Wilkinson & Pickett were proposing making societies more equal via tax-based wealth redistribution. In truth, they actually rule out progressive tax policies on the basis that they could be easily reversed by alternative governments. Snowdon even gives a partial quote which stated just this, but attempts to twist it to mean the opposite of what it does.

By about half way through, he clearly runs out of steam. His take on crime and imprisonment statistics is a mish-mash of non sequiturs with little coherence. Following this, he looks at infant mortality and spends 10 pages basically conceding the proposition put forward by Wilkinson & Pickett.

After this, Snowdon just goes to pieces. The last 60 or so pages contain little of any merit. Snowdon attempts to further mislead his reader by supposing that Wilkinson & Pickett’s primary aim was to put an end to economic growth, when in truth their idea was to recognise the limits of the good that economic growth may have and instead to focus on how to make societies more equitable. It might not be unfair to characterise Snowdon’s erratic rantings as those of a fundamentalist capitalist. He labours under the misapprehension that fairness and equality are the great evils that must be combated. While he attempts to placate his readers by stating forthright that he is not proposing greater inequality, everything else that he rambles on about belies this.

His final flourish is to look at the relation between correlation and causality. Though he is correct in stating that the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter, he doesn’t actually engage with the argument (even though it was a vulnerable point in The Spirit Level) than Wilkinson & Pickett give. Instead, his argument, if followed through, would actually undermine the bulk of the better researched chapters of Snowdon’s own response. It seems he want to cross his bridges and then burn them behind him. What had some promise for being a revealing critique, with some good points made, ends up as the mad ravings of someone who is economically illiterate.

One response to “Book Review: The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon

  1. Thanks for reading the book. You call it the “mad ravings of someone who is economically illiterate”. The Economist called it a “devastating critique”. Each to their own. [Editor’s note: Of course, the Economist is well-known to be a left-leaning journal which would never dream of heaping undeserved praise on a work of right-wing polemic]

    I’m not in the habit of replying to anonymous bloggers on the internet [Editor’s note: This is a pseudonymous, not anonymous. Any careful reader will be able to find my first name, surname, current employer, alma mater and be able to work out roughly where I live. But such laxity on your part is rather par for the course, given the book being reviewed] , but your review is special in that it includes an error in almost every line [Editor’s note: Sometimes it is fun to write a review in the same style as the book. To include an error on almost every line would indeed have been an homage to your writing] . Here are just a few…

    You say that W & P included only “economically developed” countries and imply that the countries that I added to the analysis are not economically developed. In fact, I only included countries which are richer than Portugal according to the graph on page 7 of The Spirit Level. Without the judicious exclusion of several rich countries, The Spirit Level falls apart. This is a crucial point which you do not explore. Instead you leave the reader with the impression that it is I who did the cherry-picking. [Editor’s note: What Wilkinson and Pickett did was to choose a set of criteria and stick to it. You chose a different set of criteria and stuck to it. I did not accuse you of cherry-picking. If choosing a criteria and being consistent is cherry-picking, as you would like to attribute to Wilkinson & Pickett, then it would only be consistent to apply it to your work also. I would not state that either were cherry-picked. But you might choose both. To state one is and one isn’t is merely dishonest.]

    You say the chapter on crime and imprisonment is a “mish-mash of non sequiturs with little coherence”. I fail to see how any reader can be confused. The main points, in order, are that (a) rates of imprisonment cannot be used as a proxy for the crime rate, (b) the crime rate is not lower in more equal countries, (c) crime has fallen while inequality has stayed the same or risen, (d) W & P’s homicide graph is distorted by an obvious extreme outlier, and (e) there is no inverse association between homicide and suicide rates.

    You say that in my discussion of infant mortality I am “basically conceding the proposition put forward by Wilkinson & Pickett.” W & P’s proposition is that there is a causal relationship between rates of inequality and rates of infant mortality. I say that there is not. How could I make this any clearer?

    Regarding W & P’s use of data from US states, you say that I “overlook this entirely” but then concede that I discuss it in a footnote and have written about it on my website. So have I entirely overlooked it or have I, in fact, written about it on a website that anyone can access? [Editor’s note: This is a book review, not a website review. If the matter is omitted in the book then I am free to point out as much. It matters not one jot if you include any other information on a website or on a file in the locked cabinet in the local council basement toilet, behind a door which has scrawled on it “Beware of the leopard”] On that website you will see several graphs which highlight the point that the worst performing states are both ‘less equal’ and poorer. Income is a therefore an important third variable which W & P ignore from the outset. Since this is a fundamental problem with all their US graphs there is little point in reproducing them all – especially since W & P do not exclude states like they exclude countries. Peter Saunders has written about this in more detail in his book, Beware False Prophets, which I recommend.

    Your penultimate paragraph completely misrepresents my views. No fair-minded reader could conclude that I think “fairness and equality are the great evils”, nor do I suggest that W & P’s primary goal is to end economic growth. Quite obviously, their primary goal is to bring about greater income equality and they are prepared to sacrifice growth if necessary. From the first chapter they make it clear that they think that growth brings “diminishing returns” and by the end they are suggesting that growth needs to be ‘severely limited’ in rich countries for environmental reasons. They do not offer many practical policies for how greater inequality is to be brought about, but I argue – and show with a graph that is conspicuously absent from The Spirit Level – that it is unlikely to happen without further income redistribution. You say that W & P rule out progressive taxation and accuse me of trying to “deceive” the reader by claiming otherwise. W & P have in fact called for “more progressive income and property taxes” on their own website, a fact that I mention on page 126 of my book.

    You acknowledge that I am not proposing greater inequality, but you then accuse me of being insincere. If the only way you can maintain your caricature of a “fundamentalist capitalist” is by accusing people of secretly having opinions which they do not hold – and which they explicitly deny holding – then you are deep into straw man territory. [Editor’s note: One enters deep into strawman territory simply by reading your book]

    Speaking of logical fallacies, neither the Democracy Institute nor any other “right wing think tank” was in any way instrumental in “getting this book written” [Editor’s note: The inside cover of the book states differently. It very clearly identifies the Democracy Institute. Or do you endorse having the addresses of random think tanks on the inside covers of all your books when they are wholly uninvolved in their production?]. Nor have I ever written a book “in praise of the pro-smoking lobby”, whoever they may be [Editor’s note: Oh dear. You seem to have forgotten writing Velvet Fist, Iron Glove.]. You have clearly never read that book [Editor’s note: Oh, you do know what I was talking about! So you were simply trying to pull the wool over my eyes.] and you do not know how or why I came to write TSLD (answer: because I was interested in the subject matter and thought others would be). Having started your review by claiming to be swayed only by evidence, you immediately allow your imagination to run wild in an effort to poison the well. Even if what you imagined were true, it would have no bearing on what I write in TSLD.

    Your final paragraph just doesn’t make any sense. You say I don’t engage with W & P’s argument about correlation and causation. I’m not sure what argument you are referring to. On the one occasion when they discuss it, their arguments boils down to saying that so many correlations cannot be attributed to coincidence. But, as I show at length, the vast majority of the correlations are the result of selection bias or are extremely weak. I am at a loss to understand how showing this undermines my own case.