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Julie Novak reviews
The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Bloomsbury Press, 2009,352 pages), and
The Spirit .Level
The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the left's new theory of everything
Christopher Snowdon (Democracy Institute, 2010, 172 pages)
he criticisms of market capitalism have changed over the past two centuries. The writings of Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century emphasised that the private ownership of the means of production benefited the bourgeoisie at the expense of the labouring classes. Closely tied to the notion that capitalism oppresses was the charge that capitalism aggravates social inequalities, as the rich entered the financial stratosphere at the expense of the poor. During the twentieth century, the anti capitalist strain developed on many new fronts. Economists such as J. M. Keynes argued that, if lefi unattended, markets would destabilise incomes. From the 1950s it was then argued that capitalism would lay waste to the environment and deplete our natural resources. From the late twentieth century the opponents of markets claimed that capitalism makes us all feel unhappy, and now the latest salvo fired by the political left is that capitalism
makes us unhealthy. An explanation for the development of alternative explanations as to why markets are bad is that, over time, many of the criticisms have actually been found wanting. The growth experience of communist countries, and nations with predatory governments, clearly illustrate that freer markets create more wealth. The recent Asian experience tellingly illustrates how an embrace of capitalism has lifted scores of people from abject povetty. Self reported happiness and health status' are higher in wealthier countries, where the economic capacity of individuals to attain such outcomes are the greatest. When faced with the facts, many critics of the market system begrudgingly move on to another potential area of anti capitalist sentiment to exploit. By contrast, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in theit best selling The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, attempt to bundle all of the anti-market criticisms together in a broad, sweeping narrative. The basic idea proffered by Wilkinson and Pickett is that societies with a
lower dispersion of relative incomes perform better on a wide range of outcomes such as life expectancy, infant mortality, mental illness, teen births, obesity, homicides, imprisonment rates, educational performance, trust and social mobility. To prove their point, Wilkinson and Pickett illustrate a myriad of scatter plot diagrams that purport to show that more equal Scandinavian countries and Japan outperform the United States on cross country correlations between inequality and the measures cited above. The Spirit /.fff/chronicles a psychosocial mechanism by which the increasing anxieties of individuals in more unequal countries about their place in the social pecking order leads to lives that are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Yep, you guessed it, those of us in unequal societies are eating junk food, assaulting each other, landing ourselves in gaol, and leading ourselves to early graves because of frustration that we can't all be as rich as Paris Hilton or LeBron James. Upon devising their universal 'theory of everything,' where equality must rule above all else, Wilkinson and Pickett call upon the citizenry of the world www.ipa.org.au
JuUe Novak is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.
exclaiming that 'it falls to our result of inequality. By contrast the modern left have shrugged off all pretence of aspiration. Snowdon shows that when the A major rebuttal of the empiri. Wilkinson and Pickett illustrate a fundamental change in thinking about questions of aspiration by those opposing market capitalism.' whereby spuri.Hong Kong and Slovenia are missing nomic and social debates once and for from the illustration presented in The all. IPA Review \ August 2010 55 .au Pickett 'inequality is everything' dictum should provide further cause for thought. what appears to be outrigbt data ies provide the basis For individuals to mining. IF wealth is to be transferred From tbe individual to the government on such a scale.Pickett regularly confound correlation nomic growth centred upon progressive with causation. For example. through espousing policy objectives that aim to take choices away From individuals. for radical change in an attempt to empower the disenfranchised with greater economic and social choices. For good measure. Far from providing the scientific countries such as the Czech Republic. then perhaps quotes From between them.countries are considered. the association between income equality and life expectancy has disappeared.parity in social problems must be the bution. Until recently the political left Fought.2006 life expectancy data is plotted cal analysis and policy conclusions by against inequality. As stated by Snowdon.ca. for example which the 'ecological Fallacy. controversy of its own. in some growth is that more wealthy societ. families and communities. transformations in human history'. and all relevant Wilkin.others disapproving of the Wilkinsonwww. Wilkinson and fectively.whether or not published results can acteristics arc drawn from group level be replicated.ipa.' The Spirit Level Delusion suggests that the elephant in the room is Wilkinson and Pickett's advocacy of a far greater involvement of the state in our daily lives.Report data for 2004 to show a lower tion movements. Snowdon.ixes and ratcheted public sector expen. fact a positive correlation between in his book The Spirit Level Delusion: the two measures. theory of everything to settle all eco. with his take down of the have moved away from this anti-growth Wilkinson-Pickett scatter plot method policy recipe over the past decade or so.deavour within the natural or social sciences. a basic error in any ent. It is invariably a short step From What is their . Snowdon was able to find a similar reFact Checking the Left's New Theory of lationship using 2009 data. diture.org. In terms of a serious comparative analysis of the economic and social conditions ofthe developed world.its tendency for its results to rely upon cies conducive to stronger economic the selective use of data and.son and Pickett has been recent. the reason why cism of Vie Spirit Level by Snowdon is countries are pursuing Free market poli. ' TIK Spirit If reading Snowdon's detailed criLevel relics on the conceit that wealthy tique of The Spirit Level is insufficient couiuries are basically the same. Pickett use UN Human Development As shown by the record of migra.' Commentary on a quality of life index for The Economist magazine stated 'the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction. such as Sweden. with to sway the true believers of big govinequality being the main difference ernment. countries that consis.average life expectancy for those retently fail to deliver economic prosper. this prescription would deliver nothing short of an absolute deprivation of liberties that would lead all of us to be wotse off. This is powerfully illustrated by Yet it is notable that even egalitarian Nordic countries.siding in more unequal countries. some wealth nations. Everything. As stated by Snowdon. Perhaps the most damning critiFundamentally.ses.countries are included in the sample or ous conclusions about individual char. The Spirit Level has elicited major Spirit Level. Wilkinson and Pickett use resource—people—from low to high data from the 2006 report elsewhere in their book. Tlje Spirit Level is simply characteristics. In addition. Wilkinson and Pickett's analysis When subjected to even the basics repeatedly commits what is known as of critical testing. supposedly. Consequently. found hopelessly wanting. This is faulty logic generation to make one of the biggest and a classic ecological Fallacy'.solution to elicit this this to demonstrate that Wilkinson and big transformation? An aversion to eco. ity risk the exit of their most valuable Strangely. any dis. Indeed. pursue their own ends in life more efFor example. often violently.to agitate for massive income redistri. a 2002 editorial in the British Medical Journal stated '[n]ow that good data on income inequality have become available for 16 western industrialised countries. there is in ly presented by Christopher Snowdon. If realised. '[r]eplicating tbe Scandinavian model would require the state to take half of GDP. to show that. However for a barometer of how the modern political left think this book proves indispensable. we are entitled to ask what we will be getting in return'. The Spirit Level is best left aside. alcohol conas evidenced by their significant cuts sumption 'causes' divorce and recyin corporate and personal income tax cling 'causes' suicide! rates.
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