Debunking the right’s attacks on The Spirit Level

In recent weeks three separate pamphlets have been published which take issue with the research and the analysis of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s widely acclaimed book ‘The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone’.

In recent weeks three separate pamphlets have been published which take issue with the research and the analysis of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s widely acclaimed book ‘The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone’.

The authors of The Spirit Level have already written a detailed response (and also this one published in The Guardian) which expose “the serious methodological errors” in Policy Exchange’s work; point out the lack of any peer-review of their detractors’ work; and cite the many other academics who have conducted research which supports The Spirit Level’s conclusions.

But there are some further gaping holes in the Policy Exchange and TaxPayers’ Alliance’s publications which are worth pointing out.

First and foremost, The Spirit Level is not the only influential study to recognise that socio-economic inequality, particular in the distribution of income and assets, is also profoundly damaging to individuals, families, society and the economy.

This year alone we have had the Marmot Review into Health Inequalities and John Hill’s National Equality Panel’s report – written by the current president of the British Medical Association and the Professor of Social Policy at LSE respectively. Both men conclude that while the poorest suffer most and require most support to boost their life chances and well-being, improvements can only happen once there are fewer gaps between all sections of society.

As Marmot puts it:

“Focusing solely on the most disadvantaged will not reduce health inequalities sufficiently. To reduce the steepness of the social gradient in health, actions must be universal, but with a scale and intensity that is proportionate to the level of disadvantage.

“We call this proportionate universalism.”

Will Hutton, the very person the government has entrusted with its review of public sector top pay, has just written a book (publication imminent) called ‘Them and Us’: politics, greed and inequality – why we need a fair society. The respected cartographer Danny Dorling has also just published a book ‘Injustice – why social inequality persists’ which pulls together reams of ONS and other data to draw parallel conclusions to The Spirit Level.

Politically this new emphasis has also been evident in the commitment by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to a London living wage of £7.85 an hour and David Cameron’s view that the differential between highest and lowest paid in any public sector agency should be no greater than 1:20. The election campaign, the Coalition Agreement and most recently the Budget have all been framed in terms of fairness, who should be paying the burden for reducing the deficit, and whether resources should be targeted most only at those at the bottom or more universally.

Policy Exchange and other recent critics conveniently forget that The Spirit Level has been embraced by people across the political spectrum.  Positive reviews have been penned from the likes of The Daily Telegraph’s economics editor and The Economist; David Cameron referenced it in his Hugo Young lecture and Michael Gove was effusive in his praise when interviewed alongside Richard Wilkinson on the Today programme. Demos have even written a pamphlet (with a foreword by David Willetts) which proclaims on its cover that “equality can be a core conservative value”.

The embrace from the right has always ever only been partial; and policy prescriptions  emanating have tended to focus on tackling poverty at the very bottom but not inequality throughout society. There are now renewed attempts within the Conservative party to abandon the concept of relative poverty and say that only absolute poverty matters. That is the political context for what looks like a co-ordinated – but academically suspect – attack on The Spirit Level.

50 Responses to “Debunking the right’s attacks on The Spirit Level

  1. James Mills

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  2. Marcus Hickman

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bRykGp < authors speaking at @theRSAorg on thurs lunchtime

  3. RupertRead

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  4. The Equality Trust

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  5. Ann Markström

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  6. Joseph Bush

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  7. Lucille

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  8. Sally McYarns

    Have you debunked Christopher Snowdon’s The Spirit Level Delusion? And his ’20 questions’? He’s listen them here: http://spiritleveldelusion.blogspot.com/

  9. Ian Preston

    RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  10. Richard Bryce

    Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp (via @leftfootfwd)

  11. PSE2010Team

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  12. Matthew Sinclair

    Malcolm,

    How does this post “debunk” anything in the report we published? All it does is state that a lot of people find The Spirit Level’s conclusions ideologically appealing or were impressed when they read it. That doesn’t refute the argument that the empirical claims it makes cannot be sustained. None of the works you’ve linked to appear to replicate independently the empirical findings in The Spirit Level.

    I was expecting better when I saw that Left Foot Forward was publishing this article, thought you might have read our report and written some kind of response to its statistical findings. Was looking forward to a robust empirical debate. Instead, you’ve written a lame appeal to irrelevant authority.

    If you want to engage in this argument properly, answer the 20 questions for The Spirit Level authors and enthusiasts that we published this morning:
    http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/research/2010/07/the-spirit-level-20-days-20-questions.html

    Best,
    Matt Sinclair

  13. Matthew Sinclair

    And as for other academic research supporting The Spirit Level’s findings. The most heavyweight investigation, for the Journal of Economic Literature by Angus Deaton, disagreed on the key variable of life expectancy. Chris Snowdon recently wrote this about the BMJ’s editorial line on the matter:
    http://spiritleveldelusion.blogspot.com/2010/04/case-study-life-expectancy.html

    “In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett cite a 1996 editorial from the BMJ which discussed the “big idea” that “the more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society.” At that time, the BMJ was broadly supportive of the theory but research into it was still in its infancy. Wilkinson and Pickett do not mention the editorial that appeared in the same journal six years later, which concluded:

    “Now that good data on income inequality have become available for 16 western industrialised countries, the association between income inequality and life expectancy has disappeared.””

  14. Philip Martin

    If I can make a suggestion…it will not seem like ducking an argument if you do not respond to Matthew Sinclair. I seriously wonder if there’s a more ideologically-fixated group than the Taxpayer’s Alliance. You can never change their mind, so why bother? Cite them as examples of deluded right-wing zealots but don’t waste time answering swivel-eyed lunatics…just a thought…

  15. Tim Holmes

    The right's attack on the evidence 4 the socially damaging impacts of inequality is academically & ideologically suspect: http://is.gd/dy75U

  16. Sally McYarns

    I disagree Philip, they haven’t addressed their points, they’ve just stated that people agree with them and yes a lot of people in the field that they work in agree with them too. But if these points, the ones in The Spirit Level Delusion, are so easy to refute then why don’t they? The author of that book has listed 20 or so questions his blog page, why not answer them instead of repeating what you’ve already said and put him out of business along with the other idealogues?

  17. Neil O'Brien

    And there's a row going on over at Left Foot Forward too. See Matthew Sinclair's interesting point in the comments: http://bit.ly/bR4CYt

  18. Kathryn Busby

    Sally

    Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (who wrote The Spirit Level) are going to be answering the critics face-to-face in a debate this Thursday.

    The RSA is hosting the debate which will involve Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, Christopher Snowdon (the author of The Spirit Level Delusion) & Peter Saunders (the author of the Policy Exchange pamphlet).

    The tickets have all gone, but you can listen live at: http://www.thersa.org/events/listen-live or download the podcast later.

    Kathryn

  19. Sally McYarns

    @Kathryn

    Oh that should be good. Thanks for this!

  20. Malcolm Clark

    @ Matthew, Sally et al

    My aim in this article was not to address the academic and statistical side of the debate: I’m not an epidemiologist, but Richard and Kate are … and they have addressed those specific points in several articles (linked to in the post) and I believe a forthcoming one in the Wall Street Journal too (responding to Snowdon’s original piece).

    My aim was to give some political context to the recent attacks on The Spirit Level. Rather than crazily branding it a ‘left wing conspiracy’ (which is how Peter, Chris and Matthew continually try to portray it), I have simply set out actually how mainstream and academically and broad politically supported the ideas and the evidence on the benefits of greater income equality are.

    There seem to be two key reasons why we are suddenly hearing these attacks on The Spirit Level now. The first comes about from the change in Government and the new stronger political opportunities opened up on the right to challenge prevailing views on poverty and inequality. The second is that earlier this year the Equality Trust openly published all the data used in the book, so anyone – no matter their stat skills or political bent – could examine their workings. That kind of transparency and willingness to debate all-comers (as with the RSA debate this Thursday) is highly commendable and very rare.

  21. One Society campaign

    Our response to the right's attacks on The Spirit Level…… http://fb.me/F78SxL8K

  22. Jonathan Taylor

    RT @One_Society: Our response to the right's attacks on The Spirit Level…… http://fb.me/F78SxL8K

  23. Chris O'Sullivan

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level: http://bit.ly/bRykGp

  24. Think Debate

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on <i>The Spirit Level</i> http://is.gd/dy75U

  25. Richard Watts

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the right's attacks on The Spirit Level http://is.gd/dy75U

  26. Tim Worstall

    Quoting either Marmot or Hills doesn’t do you much good either.

    Marmot made a glaring error right at the start. The assumption is that health inequality is caused by income inequality. They don’t even discuss, not at all, the thought that income inequality might be caused by health inequality.

    Something which is obviously and clearly true for some subset of the population: if you get a chronic illness in your 30s or 40s, one which means you cannot work, then you’re going to be poor, aren’t you?

    A reasonable report, one actually worth paying attention to, would at least try to explore the two effects: Marmot doesn’t and thus isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

    Hills….well, Hills suffers from a different problem. As I’ve said here before, Hills looks at the market distribution of wealth. But that again is an error. What we want to know is what is the distribution of wealth after the things we do to correct the market distribution. Just as we do with income inequality.

    Think for a moment: it would clearly be ludicrous to measure income inequality without including the effects of benefits, housing benefit, social housing, state pension and so on. We’d be entirely blind to the effects of all the things we already do to correct that market distribution (all the things which bring the gini down from some .51 to .34….or the ones in Sweden which bring their gini down from .48 (the same as the US) to .25 (much lower than the States)).

    Yet what does Hills do? Entirely ignore all of the things which we already do to change the market distribution of wealth. Just as one example they count private pensions as wealth….and exclude state pensions (even though their source document makes it very clear that this radically changes wealth distribution and should thus be included). Another, they include owner occupied housing as wealth but not the subsidy (either HB or social housing) many get.

    Both reports are, sadly, entirely dreadful and simply yet more of that policy based evidence making which the last government was notorious for.

    As is the Spirit Level.

  27. Mike O'Brien

    Debunking the right’s attacks on The Spirit Level http://bit.ly/92jkXJ

  28. Healthy Policies

    Debunking the right's attack on the Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #publichealth #SDOH #disparities

  29. Healthy Policies

    RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the right's attack on the Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #publichealth #SDOH #disparities

  30. Ben Harris-Roxas HIA

    RT @HealthyPolicies: RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the right's attack on the Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #publichealth # …

  31. Ashley E Bowen

    RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the right's attack on the Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #publichealth #SDOH #disparities

  32. Wilkinson clashes swords with his detractors in spirited debate on inequality | Left Foot Forward

    […] Left Foot Forward reported on Monday, several recent publications have challenged the central conclusion of the book that more unequal […]

  33. Weekend reading, 23 July 2010 « Policy Progress

    […] Malcolm Clark (Left Foot Forward) – Debunking the right’s attacks on The Spirit Level Aditya Chakrabortty (Guardian) – More choice is not helpful to society Grant Robertson – The […]

  34. Richard Lawson

    Peter Saunders’ critique removes data that does not fit his case. He needs to show why Scandinavians and Japanese are not like the rest of us, and if the US data is an outlier, it could be moderated, not ablated. http://greenerblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/equality-truth-will-out.html

  35. Nicholas Ripley

    Debunking the right’s attacks on The Spirit Level http://bit.ly/972V6y /cc @feedly

  36. health_data

    RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the right's attack on Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #publichealth #SDOH #disparities @urbandata

  37. Ben Harris-Roxas HIA

    RT @health_data: RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the right's attack on Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #publichealth #SDOH #di …

  38. Design New Haven

    Debunking right's attack on Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #SDOH #disparities #publichealth via @health_data @leftfootfwd

  39. SvR Design Company

    RT @urbandata Debunking right's attack on Spirit Level http://bit.ly/bR4CYt #healthequity #SDOH #disparities

  40. First XI: The Tory MPs committed to narrowing the gap between rich and poor | Left Foot Forward

    […] Level: why equality is better for everyone’ – at least some on the right seem to have been listening to the independent […]

  41. Doubt is their Product « Technical Slip

    […] and beyond the criticisms, Malcolm Clark at Left Foot Forward does a great job of pulling together some parallel evidence in support of the more general claim […]

  42. Are Clegg and Osborne at odds on income inequality? | Left Foot Forward

    […] been challenging the findings of the Spirit Level. Malcolm Clark has debunked these attacks on this website. Much to Mr Montgomerie’s chagrin, 11 Tory MPs have signed a pledge to narrow the gap between […]

  43. Equality of opportunity « The Standard

    […] repeated the main right wing attempt to discredit The Spirit Level, an attempt that is once again easily refuted (see also […]

  44. Britain: In Thrall to Inequality | Politics Worldwide Journal

    […] a more prosperous and more contented society, as the authors of The Spirit Level, a book that has terrified the free market right in all parties, have […]

  45. In Case You Missed It » Blog Archive » Lessons in Killing the Golden Goose

    […] rightwingnuts have been so vehement in their condemnation and more fantastical than usual in their attempts to discredit Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. What […]

  46. Richard Nalty

    Without reading either The Spirit Level, or The Spirit Level Delusion, I do note something at the outset which I think is a substantial problem for the left. It is something routinely observed at a local level. No one seems to care a great deal how much David Beckham “earns”, or how much Karen Child won on the lottery. Neither do they care if their numbers are growing or shrinking. But they do seem to care an awful lot if their mates, work colleagues, schoolfriends, Facebook “friends” or anyone close to them is doing better than them. Then it seems to matter. And something else is clearly evident to me at this early stage of investigations. If their relative lack of success is down to (at least in part) their laziness, they do not seek to remedy it. They continue to feel resentful (cue “depression” – translation – unhappiness) rather than do something constructive about it. There does therefore seem to be something underhand in play from the outset – how dare you try hard, pass exams, put the effort in and earn money, you inegalitarian! Let me see what more I can make from this after reading the two books, side by side. I do not see the initial concerns being eliminated all that easily.

  47. How does The Spirit Level withstand a critic?

    […] Wilkinson and Pickett are arguing is buttressed by numerous other studies beyond their own (see a partial round-up here) and so picking apart some of their individual data is a bit like picking apart the methodology of […]

  48. How does The Spirit Level withstand a critic?

    […] Wilkinson and Pickett are arguing is buttressed by numerous other studies beyond their own (see a partial round-up here) and so picking apart some of their individual data is a bit like picking apart the methodology of […]

Leave a Reply