Nobody asked me or paid me to write this book. I never set out write a critique of another book. While I was researching a completely different topic, I bought and read The Spirit Level because, as I said to The Guardian, it was "influential and informing debate." Those are the kinds of books I like to read, whether from left or right. When I started fact-checking The Spirit Level I realised that it was too big a subject to squeeze into an article or blog post and The Spirit Level Delusion was born.
When Dr Patrick Basham kindly offered to write the preface for the book, I published it in association with the Democracy Institute, of which he is the director. Had I known this would leave the book open to accusations of being written by a "wrecker" from a "rightwing thinktank" I wouldn't have bothered. You live and learn.
I knew when I wrote it that the dogmatic right wouldn't be interested because they wouldn't have read The Spirit Level. I knew the dogmatic left wouldn't be interested because they'd put their fingers in their ears if anyone raised difficult questions about such a politically useful text. But I also knew that there would be some people in between who had enquiring minds and a genuine interest in the issues. Perhaps I overestimated how many fell into that camp.
The Guardian quoted a few words from a twenty minute interview. No complaints, that's the way it goes...
He [Snowdon] does not believe that The Spirit Level's claim that the psychological effects on society of income inequality are so great to cause widespread social ills. "I don't think people outside the intelligensia worry about inequality," Snowdon said. "The working class don't worry about how much Wayne Rooney is earning."
It's a crude example, but it serves to illustrate one of the fundamental problems with The Spirit Level. It cannot be stressed often enough that Wilkinson and Pickett's hypothesis rests on the psychological (or 'psychosocial') effects of living in a less equal society, not the material effects of poverty.
When people say that they find The Spirit Level's conclusions to be 'intuitively' true, or that they appeal to 'common sense', I wonder whether they fully appreciate that Wilkinson and Pickett are not blaming poverty, low income or low living standards per se. They are talking about something much less tangible—a sense, a feeling, a response—to other people's wealth. As someone who happens to be in the bottom 20% of earners myself, I don't personally feel traumatised by the existence of the super-rich. Perhaps that's just me, but there is also very little empirical evidence that the psychological response to inequality has a significant effect on people's day-to-day lives.
Wilkinson and Pickett would disagree, but the (left-wing) economist JK Galbraith understood this back in 1958 when he wrote The Affluent Society:
Envy almost certainly operates efficiently only as regards near neighbours. It’s not directed towards the distant rich.
In a later preface to The Affluent Society, Galbraith returned to the issue of inequality, making it clear that so long as people's own living standards were improving, they are not troubled by the thought of other people becoming still richer:
When, as suggested in this book, men and women are employed and at continuously improving wages or salaries, they are not greatly concerned that others, with whatever justification or absence of justification, have more, even greatly more.
More recently, in Status Syndrome, the (left-wing) epidemiologist, Michael Marmot discussed the stubborn refusal of ordinary Americans to become less happy even as their country became less equal. He made a telling comment about who is really 'stressed' by income inequality:
Changes in income inequality did not affect happiness levels of the poor. The subgroup of the population whose happiness declined when income inequality increased, were richer people who described themselves as on the left politically.
I discuss this issue in more detail in the later chapters of the book.
No doubt there is resentment at some of the grotesque disparities of wealth that exist (and have always existed), but that resentment would have to be truly monumental for it to be the main driver of an entire country's performance across so many criteria. Very few variables—let alone psychological variables—show up in aggregate data from whole nations. The psychosocial effect of income inequality is not one of them, and Wilkinson and Pickett have to perform all sorts of twists and turns to make their case to the contrary. At best, The Spirit Level gives a cock-eyed view of the way the world is.
The case for greater income equality remains an ethical, moral and political issue. It cannot be 'proved' by social science.
My response to Wilkinson and Pickett's answers to my 20 Questions is here .
Some of the graphs from The Spirit Level Delusion are here.
Links to other sites discussing the debate over The Spirit Level can be found on the right-hand side of the page.