The Spirit Level delusion: It’s not about the evidence
Whether you’ve noticed it or not, the chattering classes have been all abuzz over recent months about a book called The Spirit Level purporting to demonstrate, by statistics aplenty, that places with less difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” are happier places—where everyone lives longer, has better health and happiness, and has far more sex on Sundays.
The conclusions have been embraced here in EnZed. “An unequal society is a sick society. It’s a simple, powerful idea,” enthuses the Double Standard: “These people’s work can not be dismissed,” says a hopeful Grant Robertson at Labour’s other blog. “It is important!” pontificates Scott Yorke at his. “It's to ideological politics what An Inconvenient Truth is to climate change,” assesses Tim Watkin accurately at the Pundit blog. And Colin James, the country’s most stale pundit, wonders if the 300-page tome might not become “a sort of guidebook for the next Labour ministry,” should there ever be one.
Now, the figures on which these hopeful conclusions are based have been solidly debunked as cherry-picking in books and reports like The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact Checking the Left's New Theory of Everything, When Prophecy Fails: The Spirit Level and the Illusion of Scientific Socialism, The Spirit Illusion and Beware False Prophets. As Luke Malpass at Australia’s Center of Independent Studies point out,
the income statistics are faulty … the authors ignore some key countries which don’t fit their hypothesis … [and] ignore social indicators where equal countries tend to perform badly…
The authors present a series of graphs plotting the income distribution in each country against selected social indicators, and in each case they claim to show problems getting worse as we move from less to more unequal countries. In fact, however, most of their graphs show no such thing.
Despite the huge disparity however between what the authors claim and what they can actually prove, the book has taken the whole world by storm, with one uncritical Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee, calling co-author Richard Wilkinson “the 21st Century’s equivalent of Charles Darwin.” Charles Darwin!
In a sense however, Polly is right. Darwin used the evidential methodology of his day (observation and integration) to replace previous bogus theories with sound science. And now Wilkinson and his co-author are using the methodology of the post-modern age (fiddle and fudge) to do the reverse. As Chris Snowdon points out in his own book on the delusion, both Spirit Level authors have prior form in generating crap statistics to bolster shoddy politically-driven arguments. About which, and about the bogus figures, the chattering classes have no apparent interest. Which is really the leitmotif of our postmodern 21st Century age, isn’t it: never mind the quality of the research as long as your conclusions are supported by those who can shout the loudest. (Of such “research” are this century’s “Charles Darwins” undoubtedly going to be made.)
Or to put it bluntly, it’s not about the evidence. Because if it were, a few other things would arise.
Just consider for a moment an observation made by Ludwig von Mises:
"The European worker today lives under more favourable and more agreeable outward circumstances than the pharaoh of Egypt once did, in spite of the fact that the pharaoh commanded thousands of slaves, while the worker has nothing to depend on but the strength and skill of his hands."
Now any honest commentator would notice that, wouldn’t you think? And anyone truly concerned with lifting up the “have-nots” would be trumpeting the system that raised from them and all of us from dirt-poor slavery to a time when virtually anyone can live better than the kings, pharaohs and pashas of the past ever did. Even a day labourer these days has the capacity to live well, eat well, and have at his or her command a library of the world’s greatest books, a collection of the world’s greatest music, access to enjoy the greatest sporting contests on the planet, and the ability to sip ice-cold martinis while flying at enormous speeds ten-thousand feet above the Tasman. And that process didn’t happen because Karl Marx and his confreres got hold of the economy’s commanding heights.
So if its not about evidence or helping the “have-nots,” then what is it all about?
The point was made by Andy Kessler in an interview about his book Eat People, when asked to explain why he repeatedly slams Obama’s hero Saul Alinsky:
Saul Alinsky was a community organizer who, in the early 70s, built a movement based on the disparity of the haves and have-nots, then have them elect someone to office who would take from the haves and give to the have-nots.
It’s not complicated. It’s not about evidence; it’s not about research; it’s certainly not about facts: it’s about building a power-base on the morality of sacrifice. (And as Yaron Brook and Don Watkins argue, “no system that treats you as other people’s servant can be called moral.”)
Because if it were really about helping the “have-nots,” the chattering classes wouldn’t be so excited about fudging figures about haves and “have-nots,” they’d be asking instead how someone becomes a “have” in the first place—which, if he does it right, is by driving productivity and thereby making us all wealthier—and doing everything they can to turn today’s “have-nots” into tomorrows “haves.”
But we see, however, by their embracing of bad statistics and their resolute intent to keep educational standards low (“Labour would ditch national standards” is this morning’s unerringly accurate headline), that helping have-nots become haves is not any part of their project.
Because if they got rid of the “have-nots” altogether, what then would happen to their power base?