Claims that there is a link between social problems and inequality are simply untrueby Matthew Sinclair / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Picture by Julia Manzerova
Read a response from the authors of The Spirit Level to the criticisms made in this article
Speaking on the Today programme recently to promote his Labour leadership bid, Ed Miliband said: “If you look round the world—at the countries that are healthier, happier, more secure—they are the more equal countries.” He was making explicit reference to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (Penguin), a book that has been hugely influential on leftist politicians and activists since it was published in 2009. In a recent lecture entitled “In praise of equality,” Roy Hattersley said that “anybody who’s not read The Spirit Level ought not to be wasting their time listening to me this afternoon, but should be rushing out to buy a copy.” Its influence has even extended into parts of the right. David Willetts, now minister for universities and science, wrote (Prospect, May 2009) that Wilkinson was one of the authors who had “persuaded me that inequality matters.”
Yet there is growing evidence that the book’s claims about the link between a range of social maladies and the level of inequality in a society are simply untrue.
One of the first to sound the alarm was LSE professor of social policy Julian Le Grand. Reviewing the book for Prospect last May, he set out how the authors could be ascribing problems to inequality that are really the result of cultural differences between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies, or of out-and-out poverty. Now, new research suggests that the problem with the book could run deeper and that some of the statistics are unreliable.
A Swedish report by three economists—Nima Sanandaji, Arvid Malm and Tino Sanandaji—translated into English and published by the Taxpayers’ Alliance in July, focuses on the claimed link between health and equality. First, it finds that there is no statistically significant correlation between life expectancy and equality. This is in line with the existing academic literature. Research for the World Health Organisation, published in the Journal of Economic Literature in May 2001, concluded that there is “no direct link from income inequality to ill-health; individuals are no more likely to die [earlier] if they live in more unequal places.”
Second, it points out that the authors of The Spirit Level have come up with their own index of health and social outcomes, which allows them to choose a set of numbers that suit…