Tag Archives: equality

Book Review: Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller

Regular readers of this blog may well recognise my growing addiction to the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. As they are so short and so interesting, they are ideal for me to keep in my desk drawer as an “emergency stash”. One day in early October, I switched the bag I took to work, but forgot to transfer the book (The Extended Phenotype). So it was that I dipped into the emergency stash and pulled out this take on political philosophy, which I had bought a few months beforehand.

In reviewing books, one likes to have some foreknowledge of the subject at hand, even if one does consider oneself omniscient on the subject. We read non-fiction not to be entertained, but to be informed. Though I do, from time to time, post my political opinions on this blog, the idea of political philosophy is more fundamental than the level at which I usually ponder. As such, it fitted the bill as a short introduction rather well. The individual notions will be familiar to us all. What makes this an interesting work is the particular combination of topics, along with their interplay.

He writes under the headings of political authority, democracy, ‘freedom and the limits of democracy’, justice, ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ and finally, ‘nations, sates and global justice’.

In the discussion of political authority, the figure of Thomas Hobbes looms large. In many ways, this is quite a sad outlook, particularly as I look at it from a christian perspective, as much of Miller’s argument is to do with a carrot-and-stick approach, whereby adherence to political authority is done so out of the threat of some form of physical violence. The root of this seems to be the notion of human selfishness and greed, but this seems to be accepted as a fact to live with rather than a problem to be addressed.

In democracy, attention switches from Hobbes to Rousseau. The discussion pulls on a few threads that will likely occur to anyone who has considered democracy, such as how to protect the rights of the minority and how democracy differs from mob rule, but there’s nothing earth-shattering here.

In discussing freedom, our central figure is John Stuart Mill. As with those before, he is another writer who I must confess am familiar with only by reputation than by their writing. Miller doesn’t so much give answers and just ask the reader a series of questions to consider. This is a theme throughout, so even if you disagree with the particular slant that Miller presents, he does at least give the reader room to come up with their own answers.

What seems to be the heart of the book is the notion of justice, where Miller takes as his key guide, John Rawls. The focus here is not about justice of outcomes but of justice of machinery. i.e. let’s not look at the outcomes, but at whether the systems in place are fair. At one point in this chapter, Miller seems to lose the plot entirely, trying to draw principles of justice from living in a desert. The concept of social discussed though he does bring in the counter point of Friedrich Hayek, an ideologue who I have little time for.

As he looks at the nation states, he continues to ask us questions, while sketching out the answers that others have given. At times it felt less like a book a politics and more about ethical dilemmas. One thought that flashed through my mind was about the curbs to liberty; specifically to the idea that one cannot be free to as one wishes, as that may include the ability to curb the freedom of others, hence not everyone can be free to do as they wish.

One thing that soured it was Miller’s pessimism in human nature. There was a theme running through the book about the need for either coercion or the threat of it. My personal reaction to this is that, as a species, we can do better this. It may require education, even a more enlightened worldview, but that it is possible for people to work together for a common good without the need for violence.

At this point he seems to run out of steam and so the chapter on ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ feels quite different. Here, Miller tries to ask the same questions as he has before, only through alternative lenses, as some factors fade into the background and others get highlighted. The treatment given to these subjects are so brief, though, as to be rather unsatisfying. I doubt many of the feminists I know would consider Miller to have captured the nuances of their views.

In any discussion of politics, one cannot write from a neutral perspective, just as one cannot really read such a book from a neutral point of view. Miller attempts to give a fair weighting to different viewpoints, though his choice of representatives may be questioned by some. The other thing that I picked up on, which other readers may do so, is that is quite UK-centric.

As far as meeting the brief, Miller does as good a job as one can hope. From my point of view, I acknowledge that my formal learning in political philosophy is somewhat lacking. Though I know my own mind, I probably ought to learn the minds of some of those others who have gone before me. So I have added some works of Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes and Derrida to my reading list. Though as that is rather long, it may not be until late next year before you can expect to see any further book reviews on the subject.

On egalitarianism and feminism

Egalitarian and equality logo

I’ve pondered long and hard about whether to write on this subject. In fact, the first draft of this post was started in November 2011, but it got shelved, along with several others that I may dust off and heavily edit sometime. I do not write this to antagonise or offend, but rather to clarify my thinking, communicate that to you coherently and hopefully prompt you to think. I doubt all will agree with me and indeed, you are welcome to disagree with me in constructive debate in the comments if you so wish. In trying to be clear, I have not tried to keep this short, so I apologise that it is quite a long read. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

The problems in writing on the subject

Though I write this blog pseudonymously, it is no great secret that I am a man. So, the first problem then is ‘can and should a man write anything about feminism?’ I would give the answer, ‘yes’. If the answer were otherwise, then I would view that as sexist. No person should be discriminated on the grounds of their gender (indeed, I struggle to think of grounds whereby discrimination ought to be acceptable, though I am focusing here on one particular set of prejudices).

Even if we can agree that the answer is ‘yes’, can any aspect of feminism be critiqued without being dubbed “anti-feminist”, “sexist” or “misogynistic”? Again, I would say that the answer to this is ‘yes’ and indeed I shall be critiquing some aspects of feminism. I hope in so doing that I will not be considered to be any of those things just described, though I cannot but help think that given if this post gains a wide enough audience, that some might well think that of me. It was for fear of being verbally attacked that I postponed this, as it is a highly emotive topic to many.

I am also conscious of the need for precise wording. In the past, if entering into conversations, I have used slightly the wrong word which then becomes the sole focus of a verbal attack, losing all sight of the main topic of conversation. I have tried to be careful in my use of words and have proofread this a couple of times, though I cannot rule out the possibility of a misplaced word or two. If you think I have used an incorrect word in places, whereby its correction would not drastically alter the direction of my argument, then please let me know. If such a change would have a significant influence on the argument, then it is probably fair to assume that I have said what I mean. Probably, not certainly!

My position and semantics

I am not a feminist.

I support equal opportunities and equal representation of genders. I oppose discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. I do not support sexism or anything that could reasonably be described as the denigration of one gender by another.

But this does not make me a feminist. I am egalitarian.

When it comes to determining matters of prejudice and privilege, I apply a “mirror test”. I.e. if you think something is not sexist, or not racist or not religiously discriminatory, then swap the genders, swap the races or swap the religions and then see if you still think it is not prejudiced. It is for this reason that I do not think that simply by being a male, that any opinions one might have on feminism are, a priori, worthless.

Though we have a few physiological differences which need to be mutually understood and respected, we have far more in common by virtue of our shared humanity which can and should be celebrated.

In stating my position of equality, I am sometimes told that I am a feminist because some dictionary definitions state that it is about equality. I have a Collins dictionary at home and it defines feminism as “doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women.”

The same dictionary also gives the following definition of an egalitarian: “a person who believes that all people should be equal.”

These two positions may not appear to be all that different. Indeed, I would say they are not. So even though I do not align myself with feminism, I am not wholly opposed to it.

In referring to dictionary definitions, one must also be careful to avoid taking them as complete and accurate. Those who tell me I am a feminist are often keen to point to the dictionary and state that I fit the bill. However, dictionaries are not the be all and end all of semantics. I assume most readers of this blog are either christians or take an interest in religion, so let’s go there for an example. The same dictionary from which I plucked the above has this to say about ‘faith’: “strong belief in something, especially without proof.” I don’t know of anyone of any religion who would say that that is a fair or true statement. It coincides very well (maybe even being derived from?) Richard Dawkins’ erroneous view, as espoused in The Selfish Gene. The fact is, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So it is with feminism and egalitarianism. To strip them down to one sentence summaries does both a great disservice and over-simplifies things.

Some qualms about feminism

In explaining why I am not a feminist, I must point out some issues I have with the movement. Here I will look at three, which seem to me to be common. Please continue to bear in mind, this is not a wholesale attack on feminism, I wouldn’t do that. These are just issues that I see present which sit uncomfortably with me.

Praise of the suffragettes

When looking at modern feminism, one can hardly escape the impression made on it by the suffragette movement. In some ways, this might be considered the heyday of feminism, when it was at its most radical. Yet the unreserved praise that is heaped on it makes me uncomfortable. Though I admire the guts and determination of the women of this movement, as an advocate of nonviolence, I cannot condone all of the actions that were carried out in the movement’s name. It was, at the time, considered a terrorist organisation, just as the IRA was in the 80s and 90s and as Al-Qaida are today. To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor given the acts of arson carried out and other acts of violence.

Though we now have equal votings for men and women, I am not one to say that the means justified the end. So when I hear unfettered praise of the suffragettes, I cannot help but be unnerved by the advocacy of violence that is latent within. To my mind, it went a step beyond civil disobedience, which I personally view as a totally acceptable form of protest.

In any good movement, there are often unsavoury elements. But these need to be dealt with head-on rather than swept under the carpet. One of the issues that has stirred up much debate over recent months has been the replacement of Elizabeth Fry on the £5 bank note with Winston Churchill and the subsequent campaign to ensure female representation on at least one denomination of banknote (though, for the record, having been forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school, I am no fan of Jane Austen and thought that Beatrix Potter would have been a better choice). Often coming near the top of ‘Great Britons’ polls and the like, Churchill was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Anyone who has looked into his role in the suppression of the Mao Mao uprising can testify to this. For anyone interested in a critical look at Churchill, I would recommend Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire.

A word

If there is one word that riles feminists more than any other perhaps, it is the one about which this paragraph is concerned. It is a word that is sometimes too easily used in the accusative, when it ought not to be. With any feminists with whom I have had discussions which cover the territory with which this blog post is concerned, every one of them has reacted with fury at the mention of the word, adamant that all feminism is free from it. Yet the evidence of what I read and hear tells me that is not wholly untrue. By using it, I would expect this paragraph to be the source of the most disagreement and the focus of any attack on me, if it is forthcoming. Though many, indeed most, feminists that I know of could not fairly be described as having this trait, I could not claim for it to be absent from all without telling a lie. What is this word? If you guessed it was misandry, then that would seem to be an acknowledgement that what I have said is true. As stated earlier, I would ask anyone who contests this to apply the ‘mirror’ test to statements made by, and in favour of, feminists. Though the majority will not be sexist, I’d be surprised if an unbiased application of the test came up 100% sexism-free.

Representation of all women?

The third part is the question of “who is feminism for?” The easy answer is to say that feminism is for women. After all, isn’t that the dictionary definition given above? Again, though, this demonstrates the deficiency of the dictionary definition. Feminism often fails to come across as an empowerment of women; it comes across as an empowerment of feminists. Yet one has to recognise that not all women are feminists and that some actively are against it. Yet when I read, hear or see debates between feminists and non-feminists I am appalled by the level of patronisation (and yes, I am aware of the irony of the etymology of that word) shown to the non-feminists, which are often in the same “you silly woman” tone that is used by misogynists when denigrating women.

One must then face up to the legacy and ideas on one figure of modern history: the late Margaret Thatcher. Though she did not align herself with the feminist movement, she was in many ways the epitome of it. She showed that a woman could achieve the highest position of authority in the land not bestowed on them by birthright (though it’s worth noting that the monarch has been a woman for roughly 125 out of the last 176 years). Yet I am uncomfortable with otherwise reasonable, liberal feminists who speak out in praise of her. To me, as an egalitarian, no one should have their ideas and legacy attacked because of their gender, it should be an irrelevant factor. Yet I would maintain that anyone can and should have their ideas and legacy attacked if they are worthy of being so. And I would have little hesitation (though Cameron is starting to be a serious competitor) in saying that she was the worst prime minister in my lifetime; I was born after she came to power. I say that not as an attack on her because she was a woman but because of what she did. It is the defence of her, because she was a woman, that I find I cannot agree with. Again, applying a mirror test, it would be to defend Cameron’s legislative programme attacking the most vulnerable in society because he is a man. In my view, it is simply wrong. Admiring the strength of someone’s conviction regardless of where that conviction is pointed is not an admiration I could ever echo.

Consequently, we must be careful to discern, when someone is being verbally attacked, between whether they are being attacked because of their gender or because of what they have said and done. The former is sexism and is not, in my opinion, in any way acceptable. The latter, however, if done constructively and with due grace, may be justified. If anyone attempts to use anything like the phrase, “[because you are woman/man]” then their credibility may well be damaged. If their argument rests on such a clause, I would consider them to have lost that argument.

What about christianity?

If I am uncomfortable to wear the label ‘feminist’, given its negative connotations, one might fairly ask of me, “why, then, are you comfortable to be called a christian?” Indeed, there are a great many evils that have been committed in the name of the christian faith. I hope to look at this topic on the blog soon, as it’s another post I shelved a while ago. If you wish to read about these, just pick up any book on the Crusades, the Borgias or on abuse that was at first committed and then covered up. The crimes committed in the name of the church are far worse than those perpetrated in the name of feminism.

So why do I call myself a christian? It’s because there is no commonly used alternative which is well-understood. If I call myself a follower of The Way, then someone who has either been a christian for a little while or someone who is otherwise biblically literate will likely understand what I mean by that, but I doubt the rest of the population might. When I say I am a christian, I often have to spend some time giving a nuanced and suitably detailed answer to the question, “What kind: catholic or protestant?” It would take even longer if I omitted the word christian altogether. Even though many have a flawed understanding of what a christian is, the image conjured up is not wholly removed from reality.

Another factor is that of etymology. Even though most people aren’t quite as passionate as I am about word origins, the root words in our nouns and adjectives are noticed by most people. In calling myself a christian, I make it clear that my identity is found in Christ. If I call myself a feminist, then my identity is clearly something to do with femininity. If, however, I call myself an egalitarian, my identity is clearly something to do with equality.

So here comes the nub of my argument: feminism is but a means to an end; that end being egalitarianism. The promotion of women’s rights is not complete, but it has made great progress in the last hundred years. Though, as mentioned above, I do not approve of some of the means used to achieve this. No reasonable person could deny that western society has been male dominated for far too long. In reacting against this, some aspects of feminism attempt to swing the pendulum too far the other way. But over time, I think we will obtain a fair, egalitarian balance, although it would be too optimistic to expect the elimination of all forms of sexism in my lifetime.

Conclusion

I don’t think any reasonable person can deny the evidence that feminism has elements of sexism within it. These are by no means present in everyone who labels themselves as a feminist and I would not label anyone a sexist unless that exhibited some evidence of a prejudice against a gender. If one is passionate about promoting equal rights and representation, then you are welcome to call yourself a feminist, though you may wish to clarify your position, as I hope I have clarified my position here, even if you don’t agree with it.

But my lingering question has to be, given the negative connotations that feminism has, why not call yourself an egalitarian? To me, it lacks the connotations that detract people from supporting feminism. One could spend time and effort trying to ‘correct’ public perceptions of feminism so that it is distanced from its sexist elements and the violence in its history, or one could drop the term, as the ‘black power’ movement became the ‘civil rights’ movement.

I will oppose the denigration or prejudice of anyone on the grounds of their gender, whether they be male or female. I recognise that the majority of such sexism is directed against women and so that is where the bulk of our attention must be. The so-called “trolling” of prominent women speaking out is abhorrent and must be opposed. Not because the perpetrators are men, but because what they say is abominable. I recognise that in many areas, not least in business, there are glass ceilings, holding women back. I fully support identifying how these glass ceilings operate and how to overcome them so that the best person, irrespective of their gender, gets the right job.

That’s my position.

I am an egalitarian.

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.

Putting my money where my mouth is

The 6th of April marked the start of a new tax year. At this time, there were a number of changes to the rates and bands in income tax and national insurance. Other changes to the social security system began on the 1st, with the government coming in for much criticism, in my opinion rightly so. One of the consequences that was much vaunted was Iain Duncan Smith declaring on radio 4 that he could live on £53 per week. I don’t think I could. During my time of being unemployed last year, I received £142 per fortnight. This was to cover all expenses: rent, council tax, food, utilities and travel to and from interviews. Some people told me that I ought to have been able to claim more, but this was flatly contradicted when I asked staff at the Job Centre Plus. Anyway, there was a public demand for Iain Duncan Smith to stay true to his word and demonstrate that he could live up to his claim. This was later dismissed by him as a “stunt”. Yet over 19 times as many people have signed that petition as voted for him at the last general election (at the time of writing, the figure stands at 438,210 compared to his election vote of 22,743). I wonder if his election was a stunt too.

It struck me that since he was being asked to put his money where his mouth was, it would only be right to be willing to do so myself. I ran some figures through the BBC budget calculator and worked out that in the 2013-14 tax year I will be about £179 better off. The thing is, though, I don’t think I should be better off. If I didn’t contribute to a defined contribution pension scheme or didn’t gift aid any donations then I would be a higher rate tax payer. As such, I know that means I am a hell of a lot better off than most people in this country.

The economy does have a problem with a large deficit and efforts should be made to reduce it. However, I disagree with the way the coalition government has gone about doing this. Instead of asking those who are most able to pay, the onus has been on those who have the fewest choices: the poor, the disabled and the unemployed. There is a paranoia among those on the political right that if you apply the sensible notion of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” then this will result in those who pay the highest marginal rate of tax choosing to leave the country, thereby denying the economy of their spending power and robbing the treasury of potential tax revenues. So those are paid excessively more than they need to live on have been given a tax break. But remember, even at the highest marginal rate (i.e. the rate you pay for every ‘extra’ £1 on your earnings), their effective rate (total income tax & national insurance paid divided by total gross income) is far lower. For example, though I am a higher rate tax payer, I only pay 42% (40% income tax and 2% NI) on the top few pounds of my earnings. My effective rate is 26.5%.

Yet I am unconvinced by scaremongering which suppose that the rich will flee the country to avoid taxes. Even if a small minority do, shame on them. By choosing to squeeze those with the least disposable income, the government has tried to fix the problem in the most inappropriate way. While it is a good thing in principle to encourage people into work, there have to be jobs for people to go to. Not only that, but they should be jobs that pay a decent wage. To use an analogy, imagine someone being asked to walk along a tightrope. What’s the best way to keep them safe? I would say it is to help them stay on the rope, not by removing chunks of the safety net. Yet the recent raft of reforms seems to be doing the latter

As my salary is above the national average (see link to the report from the Office for National Statistics above for details on the average being £26,500), I think I ought to be paying a greater proportion of my income in taxation. Yet I still get this £179 ‘bonus’ because of changes in the bands and rates. What should I do with this? Well, it would be hard to ‘donate’ it to the Treasury, so I am here, publicly, pledging to donate this to charity. On top of any other giving I may have, I promise I will set up a standing order for £20 per month (I rounded up) to a new charity I have not previously made a commitment to. What I need is your help.

Firstly, I need your help in choosing which registered charity to donate to. Ideally, I’d like it be one that helps those who are worse affected by the changes to social security that the government has brought in. I would appreciate your nominations from which I may then choose.

Secondly, without anyone else taking up this challenge, this will be a mere act of tokenism on my part. I would like this to become ‘A Thing’ amongst those of us who are socially minded, are paid more than it costs to live and who feel it wrong that they should benefit while those who are worse off suffer. So I would like to encourage you, even issue you a challenge, to undertake a similar commitment.

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.