The 1984 dance film Breakin’ 2 – Electric Boogaloo turned out to be a turkey and its subtitle has become a byword for iffy sequels. It is easy to see how these things come about. A fad such as breakdancing wasn’t going to be around for ever, so proposing to squeeze one final round of box office takings from the craze must have seemed a good idea at the pitch meeting.
Radical egalitarianism will not be around for ever either. And Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level, claiming an association between inequality and a range of social ills, sold more than 150,000 copies in English. No wonder the publishers wanted a follow-up. Its Electric Boogaloo is actually entitled The Inner Level and is out now. This time the authors claim that “more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone’s wellbeing”.
Might such arguments encourage those who want to take a more vigorous approach to income redistribution? If, while expropriating some investment banker at gunpoint, you can convince yourself that not only are you meeting the utilitarian test of securing the greatest good for the greatest number, but you are also doing your individual victim himself a favour by improving his mental state, then perhaps you will have fewer moral qualms about your actions.
Wilkinson and Pickett’s earlier book had argued that the rich too would benefit from redistribution, but the gains there were of a tangible, economic kind rather than the fluffy, psychological sort such as “wellbeing”.
Luckily I came rather late to The Spirit Level, and by the time I read it there were a number of cribs to read alongside it. The most useful were Beware False Prophets by Peter Saunders and Natalie Evans, and Christopher Snowdon’s The Spirit Level Delusion – Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything.
The Saunders and Evans critique is devastating. “Very little of Wilkinson and Pickett’s statistical evidence actually stands up,” they say. “Of 20 statistical claims examined, 14 are shown to be spurious or invalid … Contrary to their claims, income inequality does not explain international homicide rates, childhood conflict, women’s status, foreign aid donations, life expectancy, adult obesity, childhood obesity, literacy and numeracy, patents, or social mobility rates.”
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