He didn’t mention the book by name. He didn’t need to. When Ed Miliband used his first speech as Labour leader to declare that “the gap between rich and poor doesn’t just harm the poor, it harms us all”, his audience knew exactly what he was referring to.
More explicit was his Swedish opposite number Mona Sahlin, leader of the Social Democratic Party. When asked to define her political ideology, she gave a one word answer: “Jämlikhetsanden.” Jämlikhetsanden is the Swedish title for The Spirit Level, a book which has had a profound influence on the Left since being published last year. Its subtitle – to which the younger Miliband alluded – is “Why Equality is Better for Everyone”.
The support of two political leaders will be seen as a feather in the cap for the book’s authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who run the left-wing campaign group The Equality Trust. They argue that what makes or breaks a society is not its wealth, but its level of inequality. The two epidemiologists illustrate this with a series of scatter-plots, showing the “less equal” nations to have the most health and social problems, while the “more equal” countries – particularly the Nordic states – are happier, healthier, slimmer, more trusting, more charitable and more socially cohesive.
The mechanism behind this phenomenon is never adequately explained, and the claim that income equality is “better for everyone” and not just the poor is asserted rather than demonstrated. Above all, the empirical evidence presented suffers from serious methodological flaws and selection bias. Third variables were ignored because, as Pickett told the BBC’s More or Less programme, they did not “believe” there were “potential alternative explanations” beyond inequality. Inconvenient countries like the Czech Republic and Hong Kong are missing. Sources are chopped and changed. When the data fail to comply with the theory, different measures are employed. And numerous social problems – suicide, alcoholism, divorce, crime and many others – are excluded when the egalitarian countries fail to “do better”.
None of which will have concerned Ed Miliband’s audience at the Labour Party conference. A rallying cry for income equality would have received a round of applause even without the belief that their political views had been “proven” by science. Nor will it concern Miliband himself, who has defended the book in the pages of New Statesman.
But perhaps it should. Bad science makes for bad policy and The Spirit Level poses two particular dangers. Reducing inequality does not necessarily translate to making the poor richer. Wilkinson and Pickett are openly disdainful of economic growth and seem indifferent to how inequality is reduced. By their rationale, society would improve if the poor got 5% poorer so long as the rich got 20% poorer. Perhaps there are those who view the psychological impact of inequality as so ruinous that a levelling down of this kind would improve society, but the flimsy statistics of The Spirit Level don’t justify making such a leap of faith.
Perhaps the greater threat is to the intellectual climate. If we choose to believe in a simple, monocausal explanation for all societal ills, we risk overlooking the real causes and, therefore, the real solutions. Wilkinson and Pickett are hardly the first people to have noticed that rates of infant mortality, murder and obesity vary between countries. All the issues dealt with in The Spirit Level are academic fields in their own right and experts have a good understanding of the real reasons why some countries do better than others. So long as we understand the issues, we can do something about them. But if we take the view that adjusting one economic variable will solve all other problems, there is a real danger that we divert our time, energy and resources away from what will actually work.
As Labour draws backs into its left-wing comfort zone, the easy answers being peddled in The Spirit Level will continue to hold a certain allure. Buttressed by soft science and sold under the guise of equality, the reheated policies of the Michael Foot era can almost appear new and exciting. In truth, reducing income inequality is easily achieved, if there is a will to do so and if one is prepared for the unintended consequences. There are no such easy answers for reviving the economy and tackling complex social problems.
The electorate understands this. Across Europe, the economic crisis has failed to provoke the backlash against capitalism that was predicted (and hoped for) in some quarters. Even in Sweden, voters have condemned the Social Democratic Party and its Spirit Level-loving leader to an unprecedented second successive electoral defeat. If he wants to avoid the same fate, Labour’s new leader will have to draw on more than populist paperbacks and wishful thinking.
Christopher Snowdon is the author of The Spirit Level Delusion