Philip Booth discusses inequality on Radio 4

Yesterday I appeared on the Radio 4 Sunday Programme. The programme is available online on the BBC iplayer at until 2 January. It begins with a discussion of the work of Charles Booth and William Booth. The debate with Philip Booth comes about 36 minutes in.

Part of the programme looks at a book by Wilkinson and Pickett called The Spirit Level which suggests that more unequal countries lead to much worse outcomes for everybody. Wilkinson himself said on the programme that it would be better to tax the rich and throw the money away because the resulting increase in equality would be good for society. In my view, policies based on institutionalising envy should have no place in a civilised society. But, notwithstanding this, his premise about taxing the rich is based on the results of a great deal of statistical modelling about inequality which raise many questions.

I must confess that I have not read the book – I would genuinely welcome comments from those who have read it, or indeed from the authors. I have read some detailed summaries and reviews and the following points come immediately to mind.

- There is much made of the relationship between inequality and infant mortality – in particular the high rates in the US and the very low rates in the “equal” societies of Japan and Sweden. However, when I looked into this, I discovered that, in the US, every baby who is delivered and dies counts in the statistics, no matter how premature or how small. In Japan, deaths within 24 hours of birth are recorded as miscarriages; in Sweden, deaths under a certain birth weight are not recorded in infant mortality statistics. Apparently this, together with the higher number of migrants in the US (see below), explains the differences in recorded infant mortality.

- The authors make much of the relationship between crimes of violence and inequality – again the US being the outstanding example. However, we would expect crimes against property to be associated more with inequality and these are 2.5 times higher in Europe than in the US…Why are the authors so quiet about this?

- When problems are positively associated with equality (such as suicides) these are regarded as anomalies (to the authors’ credit they are not brushed under the carpet, they do try to explain this).

All in all, the message seems to be that homogeneous and closed societies that are not very receptive or attractive to migrants score well on equality. Large heterogeneous, dynamic economies that are attractive to migrants score badly. Migration, of course, helps cause inequality – as migrants are often moving to avoid poverty and they start poor, but this leads to some important questions. Why are migrants attracted to countries that are so unequal if all other quality of life indicators are worse in such countries as well? Why are migrants not clambering to get into Japan and Sweden? And why, in many respects, is Japan, if it scores so well on equality and so many other lifestyle measures, burdened with a huge debt and a catastrophically low birth rate that seems to reflect a huge degree of pessimism?

“Revealed preference” seems to suggest a desire to live in the US and the UK rather than in Japan, whatever the statisticians might think is rational.

By ‘inequality’ do we mean differences in income or wealth (that is, financial inequality)? I regard it as desirable (for all of us) that some people are so wealthy that they can afford to be completely independent; and that often their children can too. Or do we mean ‘diversity’? I have always thought that Europe’s diversity for five hundred years or more was a ‘good thing’; hence I am nervous about the European Union’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy.For those who fancy ‘equality’ as an ideal, I do recommend L.P. Hartley’s ‘Facial Justice’, in which beautiful girls are deliberately ‘uglified’.

The authors’ main point seems to be that inequality causes ’social stress’ and anxiety for status, thereby causing all sorts of social ills. One problem here is that if such a relationship exists, it should be perceived inequalities (as opposed to actual inequalities) that matter. I’m quite sure that if a Europe-wide survey asked people something like ‘Do you think inequality in the society you live in is very high, high, moderate, low, or very low?’, and if the survey results were plotted against national Gini-coefficients, there would be absolutely no correlation.

As the authors of The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better, Philip Booth said he’d welcome our comments on what he has to say about our book. Although we’d prefer it if critics read the book before taking issue with it, it was good of him to admit to not having done so.The book shows that countries with wider income differences do worse on measures such as homicide, infant mortality, mental illness and teenage births, child wellbeing, life expectancy, imprisonment rates, and drug abuse. As well as analysing the international data for rich developed market democracies like Britain, we also test these associations among the 50 states of the USA: in both settings greater inequality leads to a general social dysfunction. Throughout the book we use the most reputable sources of data: the UN, World Bank, OECD, WHO etc and take all the data as presented in the source with no ifs and buts. Basically the data confirms what many people, over hundreds of years, have suspected: that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive.Booth questions the relationship between inequality and infant mortality. Because the same associations crop up among the 50 states of the USA, our conclusions are not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms he makes of the data for particular countries (criticisms which we believe are anyway mistaken). But even looking at the international data alone, if you remove countries such as the USA, Japan and Sweden (so allowing critics to pick and choose the data as we do not ourselves) there is still a statistically significant correlation between income inequality and the Index of Health and Social Problems among the developed countries remaining in our analysis. The relation between inequality and infant mortality is very robust. A systematic review of 10 independent studies of income inequality and infant mortality by Professor Nick Spencer at the University of Warwick comes to the same conclusion; other researchers have also made the same observations in less developed countries. But instead of “make much of” the data on infant mortality as Booth suggests, we treat it simply as one more component of the very widespread tendency for health and social problems to be worse in more unequal societiesBooth also claims that we “make much of the relationship between crimes of violence and inequality – again the US being the outstanding example.” He states that he would expect crimes against property to be associated more with inequality, than crimes of violence. As with infant mortality, we do not emphasize the impact of inequality on violence more than its impact on other health and social problems. But, in addition to our own work, there is a large body of evidence showing that income inequality is consistently related to violence, both internationally and across different US states. There are more than 40 independent studies confirming this. We know from the work of criminologists and psychiatrists that the most common trigger to violence is disrespect, loss of face and humiliation. As social distances increase and social hierarchies become steeper and more rigid in more unequal societies, status competition and the potential for people to feel vulnerable to disrespect increases, and levels of violence rise. Although the picture is less clear, most studies do not find a relationship between income inequality and property crime. Property crime tends to increase in times of economic recession and hardship.Inequality damages the quality of social relationships – more unequal societies are less trusting, less socially cohesive, less public spirited, and more likely to be characterized by downward discrimination and higher levels of hostility. Booth suggests that when we find health or social problems that are positively associated with income inequality, these are regarded as anomalies. As indeed they are. We find that income inequality is statistically significantly related to: lower levels of trust and social capital, higher levels of mental illness and drug use, lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, obesity, teenage birth, violence and imprisonment. In more unequal societies child well-being is lower, children’s educational scores are lower, they are more likely to drop out of school, social mobility is lower, women’s status is lower, child conflict is higher and adults are more aggressive. More equal societies are more peaceful, spend more on foreign aid, recycle more, spend less on advertising but more on public schooling, and have better parental leave policies. More equal areas of the USA have lower levels of debt and divorce. In contrast to this striking tendency for more unequal societies to have more health and social problems, we found three ‘anomolies’: in more equal countries rates of suicide and smoking are higher than in more unequal countries and more children have ‘low aspirations’. Rather than hiding these few counter examples, we discuss each of them. We think that the fact that suicides are higher where levels of violence are lower suggests that the tendency for violence to be expressed outwards, against others, rather than inwards, against oneself may be different in more and less equal societies. Rates of smoking are probably unrelated to levels of income inequality because the countries we are comparing, at a single point in time, are at very different points in the well-known ‘smoking epidemic curve’ – where the social distribution of smoking reverses over time. When it comes to children’s aspirations, we find a mis-match between children’s well-being and educational achievement and their aspirations. In more unequal countries, children are doing less well and achieving less, but have higher aspirations. This may be because money and status are valued even more highly in more unequal countries. Sadly, these higher aspirations are more likely to lead nowhere in more unequal societies – as they have lower social mobility and indeed seem to be ultimately less creative and innovative, as measured by their lower level of patents granted per capita. More unequal societies waste a greater proportion of their potential human capital.Finally, Booth suggests that it is “homogeneous and closed societies that are not very receptive or attractive to migrants” that “score well on equality.” Not so: Sweden has almost the same proportion of foreign-born residents as the USA. And research has shown that ethnic heterogeneity does not explain the relationships between income inequality and poor health. It is worth repeating what we said above: these relationships are not driven by something odd and exceptional about Japan vs. the US, or the Scandinavian countries vs. the English-speaking world – the impact of inequality can be clearly seen even when we remove these countries from our analysis. And as we repeat all our analyses within the 50 states of the USA, nor can cross-national differences in culture be an explanation. In summary, we would encourage anybody who wishes to engage with the important issue of inequality to read our book in full, and to visit the website of The Equality Trust ( where a brief summary of the evidence can be viewed and downloaded. We were delighted that David Cameron mentioned our book with apparent approval in his recent Hugo Young Lecture. It is important for Conservatives to address these issues and not to dismiss the damage done to our society and its children simply as ‘the politics of envy’. We would be pleased to give a full presentation of our findings to organisations such as the IEA or the Centre for Social Justice, and look forward to an invitation!

Thank you for these considered comments. The line I took on Radio 4 was that policies to directly counter inequality (eg the UK education system, anti-marriage and anti-work biases in benefits systems) often entrenched inequality as compared with policies that were less concerned with equality than other objectives (eg education policy in Sweden). The book does not really cover the normative side. We will consider some kind of event on the issue in due course – especially as we come close to publishing our own work in area. I should add that I don’t think the authors were referring to me, but I never used the phrase “politics of envy” nor is the IEA Conservative but an educational charity.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.