Does recycling cause suicide? Or why The Spirit Level is wrong and more equal societies are not happier – Telegraph Blogs

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Does recycling cause suicide? Or why The Spirit Level is wrong and more equal societies are not happier


The Spirit Level proved what egalitarians had always known

It was the book that finally proved what egalitarian-minded liberals knew all along – that inequality was not only morally wrong but was literally the leading cause of all social ills, from homicide to obesity to early death and divorce.

The more equal a country was, claimed Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level, the better everyone, both rich and poor, performed in every measure of social development. It must have been true – because they had graphs and statistics to prove it.

Roy Hattersley said: “It demonstrates the scientific truth of the assertion that social democrats have made for a hundred years.” Yasmin Alibhai-Brown gushed in the Independent that: “All free marketeers should be made to memorise it from cover to cover.”

The theory has just one tiny flaw – it’s complete rubbish. According to Natalie Evans in the Guardian:

A new report by Peter Saunders, published by Policy Exchange, finds significant flaws in Wilkinson and Pickett's analysis that fatally undermines their arguments and conclusion. Beware False Prophets re-examines the empirical claims made in The Spirit Level and finds that of the 20 statistical claims made in it, 14 are spurious or invalid and in only one case (the association internationally between infant mortality and income inequality) does the evidence unambiguously support their hypothesis. Contrary to Wilkinson and Pickett's claims, income inequality does not explain international homicide rates, childhood conflict, women's status, foreign aid donations, life expectancy, adult obesity, childhood obesity, literacy and numeracy or social mobility rates. Nor does it explain variations among US states in homicide, infant mortality or imprisonment rates.

They’re not the only ones. Last week, having read The Spirit Level “from cover to cover”, I then read Christopher Snowdon’s The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything.

Snowdon goes through the methodology involved in The Spirit Level and picks so many holes in the theory that were it a building it wouldn’t be passed as structurally sound by the most crooked of third world local government surveyors. Snowdon should get a job de-programming Independent readers.

The Spirit Level takes its methods from Ronald Fisher, the father of modern statistics. Fisher was a botanist who would grow two groups of tomato plants in near-identical conditions but with subtle differences, then compare the rate of growth. But The Spirit Level compares vastly different cultures, such as those of Scandinavia, formerly Communist eastern Europe, the United States and Japan, and attributes all sorts of differences to inequality.

There are other problems. The Spirit Level’s life expectancy graph uses obsolete data. Their facts about mental illness are carefully selected and based on surveys which have been widely criticised by psychiatrists. They exclude countries which don’t fit the pattern. And there is no link between homicide and inequality, Britain having lower levels than Sweden and Finland and the US being an outlier (in fact in the US crime rates entirely correlate to the size of the African-American population, something Wilkinson and Pickett only briefly and awkwardly touch on). In terms of divorce, crime, alcohol consumption, smoking, single-parent households and suicide, the more equal societies actually do worse.

As Snowdon writes: “Neither random nor controlled, ecological studies (i.e. comparing whole nations) allow unlimited scope for interpretation.”

This is known as the “ecological fallacy”, and its most famous examples are the “link” between Protestant countries and suicide or that between fatty diets and breast cancer. Both mix up correlation and causation, and both are rubbish. In fact, as Snowdon shows, one could easily take the Spirit Level’s statistics to “prove” that recycling “causes” suicide.

As Snowdon writes: “It takes a peculiarly blinkered view of the world to portray Sweden, a country which has not fought a war since 1814, as being fundamentally the same as Israel, except in its distribution of wealth. Or to equate Spain and Portugal, both fascist dictatorships until the 1970s, with Belgium. Or to imagine that a culturally homogenous, traditional Asian country like Japan can only be distinguished from the United States by reference to the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the country.”

But the proponents of the spirit level fallacy are indeed blinkered, and motivated by an ideological agenda devoted towards equality of outcomes. Almost twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the social philosophy of egalitarianism, which seeks to remove all inequalities in society, not just inequalities of opportunity, is stronger than ever. The Spirit Level is just one of many recent anti-consumerist tracts – Affluenza by Oliver James, MG Marmot’s Status Syndrome and Richard Layard’s Happiness – which advocate higher taxes, bigger government and fresh prohibitions.

All these books are dressed up in pop psychology and packaged towards educated 20-somethings who are outraged by the gross inequalities in societies and spiritually alienated by consumerism. But, beneath the gloss, the ideas proposed in many of these books – not the least in The Spirit Level – are deeply sinister, and would require massive assaults on personal freedom in the name of an unachievable goal. Wilkinson and Pickett fondly reminisce about the lower inequality levels of wartime Britain without elaborating on the fact that this country became a police state during that period out of sheer necessity. Of course we felt equal – we were facing slavery or death together!

Next time someone starts spouting off about “equality” – a goal that has dug more graves than all the gods in history combined – send them a copy of Snowdon’s excellent book and make sure they read it from cover to cover.

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