“The Spirit Level” has the right wing faction of politics worried. I’ve written about the book before before, its message: An unequal society is a sick society. It’s a simple, powerful idea. It makes perfect intuitive sense and it explains a lot. It’s the kind of idea that can become a rallying point for the left and a real problem for the right in politics. The Guardian (in the UK) makes the case:
The book that has the Tories running scared
A polemic that blames inequality for most troubles in our society has energised Labour
… The Spirit Level, [is] a book which is turning into a cross between a manifesto and a call to arms. At one leftwing meeting recently, a speaker wished everyone in the country could read its argument that societies more equal than Britain enjoy better physical and mental health, lower homicide rates, fewer drug problems, fewer teenage births, higher maths and literacy scores, higher standards of child wellbeing, lower obesity rates and fewer people in prison. If they could just grasp that, he said, then they would see that combating inequality was good for everyone. His was not a lone voice. David Miliband has declared his admiration for its authors. So has Ed. I expect to hear them disputing soon about who read The Spirit Level first and who admires it the most.
If you follow the rule of thumb that no book on a matter of political controversy is worth buying until it has been roundly denounced, then The Spirit Level is an essential purchase. The Taxpayers’ Alliance warns that it legitimises a fleecing of the middle class. David Cameron’s favourite thinktank, Policy Exchange, published a book-length condemnation which claims that The Spirit Level’s authors had produced a shabby, shallow work which threatened to “contaminate” our presumably honest political debate, as if it were an oil slick heading towards a pristine coast.
I know writers who would pay for the attention epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have received, but the authors themselves are politely baffled. Wilkinson is 67, a retired professor from Nottingham University. Pickett teaches at York. When I spoke to Wilkinson, he was still recovering from the shock that their book had made them the targets of raging polemics. Their arguments, buttressed by decades of research from around the world, seem self-evident to him. Once countries reach a certain level of wealth, what affects the citizenry is not the growth in GDP but the level of inequality. Man is a social primate and people who worry about their status and feel too keenly the humiliations their superiors inflict on them become anxious, mistrustful, isolated and stressed. This pattern holds whether you look at inequalities within different countries or between more equal or unequal states in the US or counties in Chile. …
The panic about Wilkinson and Pickett on the right suggests to me that just because we have a Conservative government does not mean we live in conservative times. For years, the right could argue that there was no alternative to an economic order that mandated dizzying and ever-expanding chasms between rich and poor. Now its order has been brought down by the wealthy men conservatives in all parties so feted, I think it realises that from now on it will not be able to shout down and shut up egalitarian arguments so easily.
We can see signs of this growing panic and defensiveness here in NZ already. Bill English was very defensive about the way that his last budget increased the gap between rich and poor in NZ, and DPF tried to run the line that inequality between rich and poor didn’t matter as long as there was social mobility (a silly argument easily refuted). DPF has also dutifully repeated the main right wing attempt to discredit The Spirit Level, an attempt that is once again easily refuted [Edit: seems to be down right now see alternative version] (see also here, here). [Second edit – the authors themselves respond in detail here.]
There being nothing new under the sun, the response to the The Spirit Level is just the latest chapter in a long, slow, ongoing debate about inequality. During the course of this debate the right has tried to distinguish between “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity” (see eg our own Department of Labour review from 1995). Equality of outcome is impossible, the right would argue, and all that matters is that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. National are starting to test out a revival of this line, see for example Nikki Kaye, “I’m a National member because I really believe in the equality of opportunity for all, not the equality of outcome” (or eg here, here, here, no doubt following the right internationally eg here).
Make no mistake, the concept of “equality of opportunity” is a crock, a sleight of hand attempt to make an important issue disappear by magic. Across society there is no such thing as equality of opportunity. Yes anyone can enter a running race, but not all entrants have the same chance of winning. Yes supermarkets will sell champagne to anyone, but we don’t all have an equal opportunity to buy it. Yes universities will provide an education to anyone, but socioeconomic status is a major determinant of who will go there. “Equality of opportunity” is an attempt at distraction that only collapses back in on itself — the only way to provide equality of opportunity is to reduce the socioeconomic inequality that predisposes so much.