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.”
Snowdon is equally damning, and his demolition has the added benefit of being something of a comic masterpiece. One example the critics complained about was the book’s claim of an association between income inequality and homicide rates. Using a broad examination of 23 countries, The Spirit Level appeared to demonstrate that there was one. But Saunders and Evans found that the association was only entirely attributable to one of those countries. If you excluded that one and looked at the remaining 22, no such association was evident.
The authors of The Spirit Level were so fixed upon inequality, Saunders says, that they failed to take due account of other, often more compelling factors: “In the US, for example, the proportion of African-Americans in a state is often a much stronger predictor of social outcomes than the level of income inequality, but Wilkinson and Pickett never take ethnic composition into account in their models. When we do this, the association with income distribution often disappears: state homicide rates, infant mortality rates, average life expectancy and imprisonment rates all reflect ethnic composition, not income inequality.”
Despite many similar assaults on its methodology, the feebleness of its evidence and the poor quality of its analysis, The Spirit Level has been enormously influential, fostering a cult of economic egalitarianism that is fast becoming a new secular morality. Few now seem to question whether greater income equality is desirable. Even after most of its particular claims have been thoroughly debunked, society has chosen nevertheless to accept the broad conclusion of The Spirit Level that the world would be much better if it were more equal.
Yet even our sense of existing inequalities is brought about by statistical sleight of hand. No one seems to question whether income equality is increasing. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, right? Beware when you are invited to focus on just a few super-rich billionaires, Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs in Knightsbridge. Such people have little or no impact on the rest of us. Step back a bit and you’ll see that over the past 30 years or so income inequality hasn’t been increasing; it has largely been stable.
For today’s egalitarian zealots, equality of income will not be enough, just as equality of opportunity is not enough. Nothing short of precise equality of outcome across a whole range of criteria encompassing income, gender, race and class background will do.
Last month obloquy was heaped upon Oxford University because its intake did not exactly match the racial and socio-economic make-up of the nation. This week, Penguin Random House, one of our largest publishers, has pledged that its new hires and the books it acquires will reflect UK society by 2025. And we haven’t even started on the Inner Level boogaloo.
Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of the Spectator