The one-sentence summary
We live in a complex world of infinite subtleties and variation – don’t try to attribute causality when there is none.
WHAT THE BOOK SAYS
- A number of books, including The Sprit Level, Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist, have made extraordinary claims in favour of big government, calling for a radical shift in power from the individual to the state.
- The claims they make are based on the supposedly devastating effects of wealth, economic growth and inequality, but this book shows that the theory not only lacks empirical support but also fails the basic test of believability.
- The original Spirit Level authors, Wilkinson & Pickett, believe that more equal societies do better, and try to prove the point by showing higher rates of suicide, crime, mental illness and infant mortality (and lower rates of happiness) in unequal ones.
- The Spirit Level Delusion works methodically through all these claims, and pretty much discredits every one of them.
- Mixed methodologies and pick ‘n’ mix data are major culprits – Wilkinson & Pickett effectively only choose the bits that suit them.
- All anti-consumerist tracts end up recommending higher taxes, more government and fresh prohibition, regardless of where they start: mental health (Affluenza – Oliver James), shopping (All Consuming – Neal Lawson), health (Status Syndrome – Michael Marmot), or quality of life (Happiness – Richard Layard).
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- The book contains no big idea. Instead, it is a careful look at the data.
- It concludes only that we live in a complex world of infinite subtleties and variation, and that the future lies in improving material conditions for all rather than forcibly protecting individuals from their own emotions.
- Status anxiety exists, but is overstated. Only an advocate of the psychosocial theory would suggest that seeing the bigger seats on the way out created the difference between flying economy or first class, rather than the more obvious tangible benefits.
- Snowdon’s dismantling of the evidence makes for great reading. To show the daftness of some of the causations supposedly drawn, he produces a thoroughly plausible graph to show the correlation between educational achievement and proximity to the North Pole.
- Other comment includes “this mind-boggling combination of rhetorical tricks and non sequiturs suggests an unfulfilled career as a defence lawyer.”
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- It tries to be neutral, but it is a response with a stance, so you have to aim off for that.