Distorting the spirit of equality

The Spirit Level, a new book on why equal societies are better than unequal ones, fancies itself in the tradition of the French Revolution. In truth, it turns equality from a political goal into a therapeutic imperative.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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Anyone who follows politics or social science should be struck by what could be called the ‘Obama syndrome’. By this I mean the tendency to present what are at best mainstream ideas in grandiose, revolutionary terms. Like incredibly elaborate wrapping paper around a mundane gift, there is a huge gap between promise and reality.

Obama is merely the most prominent and oratorically gifted exponent of this approach. He did not originate it and it is certainly not unique to him. Many contemporary social thinkers present their ideas as in the tradition of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment or at least favouring radical social transformation (1). This begs the question of why, in an era when social possibilities are widely seen as being so limited, is revolutionary rhetoric so common?

The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better can be seen as a prominent addition to the apparently radical genre. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, both British epidemiologists, present themselves as advocates of one of the traditional key demands of socialist politics: equality. They even explicitly locate themselves in the tradition of the French Revolution of 1789, with its call for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. ‘We raise the same issues when we talk about community, social cohesion or solidarity’, they say (2).

The Spirit Level ends with a call for radical social change: ‘We must remember that it falls to our generation to make one of the biggest transformations in human history.’ (3) Its concluding sentence says: ‘The role of this book is to point out that greater equality is the material foundation on which better social relations are built.’ (4)

Wilkinson and Pickett also present themselves as avowedly political. They say they thought of calling the book ‘Evidence-based politics’ before settling for the catchier The Spirit Level (5). They have also set up an organisation, the Equality Trust, to help further their aims (6).

The core of their argument is a particular psychological interpretation of what is known as the relative income hypothesis. This contends that what really matters to human welfare in developed societies is not absolute income but the level of inequality. A wide range of statistical indicators – including on mental health, physical health, educational performance, violence and social mobility – are better in more equal societies. In broad terms, this leads to the conclusion that more equal societies, such as the Scandinavian countries and Japan, are better countries to live in than places with high inequality, such as America, Britain and Portugal. They draw similar conclusions from the data on American states, favouring those that are more equal (such as New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota and Vermont) over those that are particularly unequal (Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi). The only key indicator which is generally worse in more equal societies is suicide (7).

The authors are relatively relaxed about how greater equality is achieved. Scandinavian countries emphasise a redistributionist welfare system which taxes the rich relatively heavily and provides extensive social benefits to its citizens. Japan, in contrast, has narrower pay differentials than most other developed nations. Either way, Wilkinson and Pickett argue, the desirable goal of greater equality is achieved.

The Spirit Level is squarely in the tradition of growth scepticism: indirectly calling into question the benefits of economic growth (8). It argues: ‘Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. The populations of the rich countries have got to the end of a long historical journey.’ (9) In an earlier influential work Wilkinson went even further by arguing that the drive to maximise consumption could be seen as akin to mental illness (10).

An important caveat is that the two authors still concede that economic growth can benefit poorer countries. But once they are sufficiently wealthy to have passed the ‘epidemiological transition’ – the point at which chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer replace infections as the main cause of death – they argue there are few benefits to economic growth. In their view there is little to be gained from moving from, say, Greek income levels to those in America. Indeed in many respects America is seen as having some of the most severe social problems in the developed world.

Let us assume for a moment that the relative income hypothesis is correct, and that human welfare in developed countries depends on levels of inequality rather than absolute income. It is still not clear that their sweeping conclusion that economic growth has done its job would follow.

There are still good reasons to believe that increasing prosperity could benefit richer countries and indeed could be vital in overcoming challenges facing humanity. Take climate change as an example. Wilkinson and Pickett make the common error of assuming that the challenge of climate change means that humans must curb their consumption. They even argue it is ‘fortunate’ that this conclusion chimes with their own argument about equality (11). But in reality the opposite is true. Dealing with climate change is likely to demand a large increase in the amount of resources available to humanity. Building a clean energy infrastructure capable of providing plentiful, cheap energy to the whole of humanity will be a costly operation (12). Adapting to the effects of climate change, for example by building modern flood defences, also looks set to be expensive. No doubt the challenge can be met with human ingenuity but it will demand more resources rather than fewer.

Similarly there is no reason why an ageing population should constitute a ‘demographic problem’. But a precondition for giving the growing number of elderly dependants a decent standard of living is more productive economies. Economic growth is the key to providing sufficient resources for everyone, including those who are not able to work for whatever reason.

The poverty of most of the world’s people also still poses an enormous challenge. Figures from the World Bank show that almost half the population of developing countries, or 2.5billion people, still live on less than the meagre level of $2 a day (13). Wilkinson and Pickett concede they could do with more prosperity but it is hard to conceive how this can be achieved without growth in the developed countries, too. On the contrary, the global economic downturn that started in America in 2008 has quickly spread to hit the economies of the developing world.

So the existence of inequality in the richer countries does not constitute an argument against economic growth. But it could still be the case that the relative income hypothesis is true in its own terms: that inequality is the key barrier to individual human welfare rather than absolute income. Here the evidence is mixed.

It is certainly meaningful to talk about an epidemiological transition. Infant mortality in the developed countries is so low it is hard to see it getting substantially lower. Children in the developed world are mercifully unlikely to die of such infectious diseases as AIDS, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis or typhoid. However, even Wilkinson and Pickett acknowledge that life expectancy in the rich countries is rising by, on average, about two to three years every decade (14). In their view this is unrelated to economic growth but it is hard to conceive of an alternative explanation to rising affluence or associated improvements in medicine and technology; the fundamental workings of the human body are not changing so rapidly.

Some experts have also argued that the relative income hypothesis is a ‘statistical artefact’ (15). By this they mean that the statistics used by the likes of Wilkinson and Pickett provide a misleading impression of demographic trends. For example, in unequal societies there tend to be more people who are poor, at least by the standards of the developed world. But Wilkinson and Pickett counter that the effects are too great to be explained by poverty alone (16).

The blurring together of objective and subjective problems raises other questions. Factors such as infant mortality, life expectancy and working hours are different from questions such as happiness or mental illness. The Spirit Level starts with the well-worn observation that there is a ‘paradox’ of ‘human material and technical achievement’ on one side coexisting with anxiety and mental illness on the other (17). Yet it is not clear why the distance between prosperity and subjective feelings should be seen as so paradoxical. The reasons why humans can feel unhappy or even mentally ill are complex. Prosperity is a necessary condition for individuals to lead a full life but it is not a panacea for all their problems.

To their credit Wilkinson and Pickett are aware of the need to distinguish between correlation and causation. The fact that many social problems are prevalent in areas of high levels of inequality does not prove a causal relationship between the two. However, the arguments The Spirit Level uses to explain the damaging effects of inequality are open to question. One way it does this is by drawing parallels between human behaviour and that of primates. Despite acknowledging the need for ‘caution’ in extrapolating from primates to humans, the book explains how status levels affect the amounts of such chemicals as dopamine and serotonin in the human brain (18). From this observation they draw the conclusion that inequality could cause mental illness in humans.

Such extrapolation from primates to humans is entirely illegitimate. Although primates may share much of their anatomy and physiology with humans, they are fundamentally different creatures. As Helene Guldberg recently argued on spiked, humans are a vastly more sophisticated species (see Chimps are like humans? Stop monkeying around). The definition of what constitutes mental illness has also widened enormously in recent years (19). A better line of investigation would be to consider what it is about contemporary societies that is increasingly encouraging people to define their problems in therapeutic terms.

Although it is important to grapple with the details of the relative income hypothesis, it is far from the whole story. The bigger picture is about how the meaning of the demand for equality has fundamentally changed over the years. The concern of the thinkers of the Enlightenment and the exponents of the French Revolution had little to do with the measurement of inequality. It was, on the contrary, about achieving social and economic progress so that humanity could fulfil its true potential. The famous opening of Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762), ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains’, is an expression of this belief. Through the application of science and reason the Enlightenment thinkers believed it would be possible to achieve a more equal and freer society.

The supporters of the French Revolution and early socialists saw such developments in political terms, rather than, as today, in therapeutic terms. They believed that the disenfranchised should fight collectively to achieve a better life for all. Social conflict was widely seen as necessary to achieve the desirable goal of a better, more productive society. Scarcity was seen as an evil which had to be overcome.

Such an approach is a world away from the technocratic and elitist approach of academics such as Wilkinson and Pickett. They see a society rife with anxiety and mental illness, which needs expert intervention to solve its problems. Their diagnosis comes from huge databases of statistics crunched with the help of statistical packages such as Excel. For them, the ultimate goal of policy is to change people’s behaviour rather than fight to achieve a better world. It represents an elitist drive for therapeutic intervention rather than a popular struggle for social change.

In this approach, they follow many of the most prominent social thinkers, particularly economists, in Britain today. All of them follow what could be called an ‘evidence-based’ approach in which policy is seen as directly flowing from the data. Michael Marmot, a one-time collaborator with Wilkinson, has played a key role in popularising this approach in relation to a key World Health Organisation report (20). Nicholas Stern, another economist, has adapted the approach to climate change (21). Paul Collier has examined global poverty and ‘the bottom billion’ in relation to cost-benefit analysis (22). Richard Layard has applied it to happiness and policy towards children (23).

The only reason such people can get away with combining their technocratic approach with revolutionary slogans is that the latter have been denuded of their original meaning. It is precisely because social change is seen as so unlikely that they can espouse such radical concepts while propounding a fundamentally conservative approach. Equality, in their hands, does not mean a popular struggle to achieve the human potential but is more akin to equal therapy for all. Social transformation, from their perspective, means constructing institutions to intervene in every aspect of our lives.

Now more than ever it would be a mistake to judge people by their superficial rhetoric. Those who genuinely want to construct a new world will have to develop a new vocabulary to express their goals.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Prominent exponents of this highfalutin approach include Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz.

(2) Spirit Level, p45

(3) Spirit Level, p265

(4) Spirit Level, p265

(5) Spirit Level, pix.

(6) The Equality Trust website can be found here.

(7) Spirit Level, p175

(8) See Whose afraid of economic growth?, by Daniel Ben-Ami, 4 May 2006

(9) Spirit Level, p5-6

(10) Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, Richard Wilkinson, Routledge, 1996, p211

(11) Spirit Level, p215

(12) See Energise!, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, Beautiful Books, 2009

(13) Figures from the World Bank’s 2008 World Development Indicators: poverty data supplement (PDF).

(14) Spirit Level, p6

(15) See, for example, How much of the relation between population mortality and unequal distribution of income is a statistical artefact?, BMJ, 31 January 1998

(16) Spirit Level, p108

(17) Spirit Level, p3

(18) Spirit Level, p72

(19) See Down with ‘enoughism’, by Daniel Ben-Ami, spiked review of books, February 2008.

(20) Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Final Report, 2009

(21) The full 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change can be found here.

(22) See The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It, by Paul Collier, Oxford University Press, 2007.

(23) See, for example, A Good Childhood, the Children’s Society.

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