In recent years, anti-capitalist treatises have done very well on the bestseller charts and also atop many a book reviewer’s ‘Best of the Year’ list. The most obvious example of this tendency of book buyers and critics alike to embrace statist economic thinking is The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Although Snowdon reserves some of his analytical slings and arrows for several of Wilkinson and Pickett’s ideological soul mates, most of his considerable empirical arsenal is unleashed on the arguments presented in The Spirit Level.
When Christopher Snowdon first talked about The Spirit Level with me, we discussed the book’s supposedly avant-garde thesis. Both of us were surprised that such an anachronistic perspective on economic policy could strike so many members of the media and the political class as both new and relevant to our current economic predicament. Crudely stated, Wilkinson and Pickett advocate that the State (or, rather, those Wise Persons who control the levers of State power) play a zero-sum game with our economic lives.
For me, personally, Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis brings back vividly unpleasant memories of an undergraduate year in the mid-1980s that I spent, in part, being taught about socio-economic matters by my sociology tutor, a newly-minted Marxist feminist PhD. She had little tolerance for my ‘tax cutting equals economic growth equals more employment’ economic model, which she termed, ‘An ungodly synthesis of the worst of Reaganism and Thatcherism’ (which I thought oddly religious rhetoric for such a fanatical atheist). ‘On the contrary, Patrick,’ she would inform me, ‘you need to get over your fixation with economic growth. Rather than putting all our effort behind growing the economic pie, we should instead limit the pie to its current size, and then focus our energies on the issue of how we shall divide it up.’
There it was: Eighties-style socialist fundamentalism in a nutshell. Two sentences that encapsulated the British Labour Party’s economic thinking at the height of the Left’s control of the party and at the nadir of the party’s electoral relevance. Fortunately, I thought at the time, and for some time afterwards, such thinking has had its day. But I was wrong.
Analogous to an Economic Groundhog Day, our polity continues to relive the economic debate of the early 1980s, which hung on the question: Is a tightly regulated, high tax, nationalised economy better for society than a deregulated, low tax, privatised one? Many of us thought, naively it turns out, that question was answered a generation ago with a resounding, No. With the advantage of hindsight, however, it is clear that we were correct only in an empirical sense. In the political world, the economic flat-earthers never went away; they merely faded into the policy background to await their next moment in the fiscal sun, which arrived in 2008 in the form of a global recession. And, over the past two years, how the Wilkinsons and Picketts of this world have enjoyed their intellectually lazy, empirically hazy days of summer.
Hence, the need for an intellectual push-back the likes of which Christopher Snowdon so comprehensively provides in this volume. Most impressively, perhaps, Snowdon’s refutation of Wilkinson, Pickett et al. is both measured and finely balanced. When confronted with arguments and ‘facts’ that constitute little more than ‘junk economics’, it is very tempting, although rarely advantageous, to focus upon either the ignorance or the ineptitude of the researcher(s) in question. To his considerable credit, Snowdon resists the temptation to match his opponents’ tactics.
In striking contrast to so much contemporary anti-capitalist rhetoric, Snowdon’s words are calm, considered, and constructive. He simply lets his impressive empiricism do the talking for him. Having marshalled an immense body of evidence, he needs neither overheated language nor overblown conclusions.
Snowdon’s serious and careful treatment of his subject illustrates what, on our better days, we hope the Democracy Institute is all about. His ability to find the methodological flaws within specific pieces of research, unearth and explain contrasting pieces of research, and present this set of conclusions in an accessible manner is a skill possessed by a comparative few and one for which his readers should be thankful.
I am especially thankful for the realisation that, although I am an alleged expert in several of the specific areas covered in his book, I learned a considerable number of interesting things while reading it. I strongly suspect that everyone who reads this book will experience similar growth.