A superb critique of “The Spirit Level”

published on the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Blog, August 2010

If you haven’t read a book that made you laugh out loud on the bus or the Tube in a while, try Christopher Snowdon’s superb release, The Spirit Level Delusion (SLD).

But the book’s subtle humour is not the reason I am recommending it. The SLD is, above all, a book that delivers and goes well beyond the promise of its subtitle – “fact-checking the left’s new theory of everything”.

It starts by exposing the empirical flaws in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (SL), which claims that just about every social problem is caused by income inequality. Using where possible the same data sources as the authors, Snowdon shows that the results have been influenced by the choice of countries and indicators. Including just a handful of additional countries is enough to make many of the SL graphs, which show data points scattering around a straight line, dissolve into shapeless point clouds. Approximating the same abstract concept with a different proxy measure does either the same, or even reverses the correlation shown in the SL. And where this is not the case, an alternative explanation for the observed pattern is usually not too difficult to find.

Snowdon does not, of course, conclude that inequality “causes” positive social outcomes, or that the English-speaking countries perform per se better than Scandinavia. The SLD is not the inverse of the SL. Its message is merely that if you were searching for the philosopher’s stone, keep searching. The SL does not contain it.

The first three-quarters of the SL, while ultimately unconvincing, at least make an interesting and engaging read. Towards the last quarter, the SL degenerates into a conventional anti-consumerist rant. In this part, the authors repeat the same old story that the government should curtail our wealth and force us to live more simple lives, so that we can discover the things that “truly” matter. It is therefore appropriate that towards the last third of the SLD, Snowdon broadens his attack well beyond the SL itself. He critically examines a range of popular anti-consumerist literature and exposes it for the badly concealed, authoritarian elitism that it is.

When all is said and done, the SL is a variant of this strand of literature. It envisions a social system in which wise rulers prevent us from developing aspirations by insulating us from the sight of wealth and success, and thus protect us from the dangers of disappointment, failure, stress and anxiety. If a metaphor was to be chosen for this type of social system, it would be a giant playpen.

And this is precisely the reason why Snowdon’s full-scale attack is relevant. Some have argued that the SL was just a temporary intellectual fad which will be forgotten in a few years. But the wider idea that a happier society could be created by restricting people’s lifestyle choices and material possessions has come to fascinate many intellectuals, and it has been around well before the SL. The parallels with the ascent of socialism, described by Hayek in The Intellectuals and Socialism, are eerie. It may well be that the next big battle for a free society will be fought against the new anti-wealth egalitarianism. Christopher Snowdon has provided defenders of freedom with powerful ammunition.