rebuttal for The Spirit Level
February 24, 2011 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend a good rebuttal to The Spirit Level.

I find that the ideas expressed by The Equality Trust to be very interesting and I like their apparently evidence-based approach. So I want to read their book, The Spirit level.

Unfortunately, their ideas seem intuitively correct to me and complement my personal politics, which is a terrible way to start learning and thinking about an unproven theory: It'll be extremely hard for me to approach this with the same degree of skepticism as I would any other bit of political / economic theory.

So, please recommend a good critical review, rebuttal or response to read alongside The Spirit Level. I'm looking for evidence-based, well-referenced articles or books pointing out problems with Wilkinson's & Picket's arguments and presenting counter-arguments or alternative explanations. There's no shortage of purely ideological or poorly supported ranting -- pro- and anti- -- about the book online for free, and that's not what I'm after.

I have access to a good academic library but no training in economics or political theory, so stuff aimed at lay readers is strongly preferred.
posted by metaBugs to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Looking into the amazon link you sent for the Spirit Level, there is a link
to this book, which seems to be a rebuttal: The Spirit Level Delusion
posted by theKik at 9:05 AM on February 24, 2011

The easiest rebuttal is, "Every time it's been tried, it has failed."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:03 AM on February 24, 2011

theKik - Yes, that's my current best bet but I'm slightly put off by the reviews, which are basically the reviewers arguing with each other about politics, with no discussion of the book's evidence base, logical rigour, etc. Which makes me worry that the book might be more of a political tract than a reliable evaluation of available evidence.

Chocolate Pickle - easiest and emptiest. Unsupported statements like that are plastered all over the 'net, and are not particularly useful. Expanding that answer into something that's actually useful (what has been tried, in what context, why did it fail, by what metrics were failure declared, why these conclusions are different from those in Spirit Level, where these data are drawn from, etc) would fill out a lengthy essay or book. Which is what I'm looking for.
posted by metaBugs at 10:27 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the book, but studying Wilkinson's work during my undergrad I believe we referred to this paper for some criticism:

Macinko, J., "Income Inequality and Health: A Critical Review of the Literature,"
Medical Care Research and Review (December 2003), 60 (4), pg. 407-452.

I can't speak to the validity of any of this, just throwing it out there.
posted by Adam_S at 10:37 AM on February 24, 2011

The Economist has talked about this several times since it was published. Their criticism is that the statistics are driven by a few outliers.

On Equality

Spirit of the Age
posted by cr_joe at 10:39 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think some of the theses of the book are true, but it was sloppily argued. Here's criticism in the Guardian, linking to a comprehensive debunking; here is David Runciman in LRB. There's a lot more out there, but note that both of these responses appear to come from the political Left (the LRB still retains Marxist sympathies) -- heartening representatives of the rare notion that even arguments for one's own side must meet standards of rigor and honor.

This blog also serves as a storehouse of anti-Spirit Level material, although I haven't read it and can't speak either to its quality or where it's coming from. Here's a WSJ article on the subject by the author of the blog.
posted by grobstein at 10:50 AM on February 24, 2011

Try reading a classic, like The Wealth of Nations. Failing that, read a funny analysis, On The Wealth of Nations.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:58 PM on February 24, 2011

My take was here:
However, while correlations are all very well, they don't prove causation, and that's where the book starts to fall down. They quickly mention the possibility that there's a missing factor that causes both inequality and the various problems, but blandly state it's unlikely that one will be found. To their credit they do go through a variety of other factors like ethnicity.

However, to anyone who's read any sociology, there seems to be an enormous hole in the shape of culture. Suppose there's something about culture, maybe even mistrust which they class as a symptom, which causes both inequality and poor social outcomes?

This matters because their proposed solution is to deliberately create a more equal society, which runs straight into the jagged teeth of the dreaded efficiency/equality tradeoff. Basically if you make an economy more equal, it tends to become less efficient. Suppose you have no welfare at all: the people who haven't starved or frozen to death will tend to work very hard, producing goods and services very efficiently. At the other end of the scale, if you enforced absolute equality so that everyone had the same income, there'd be no financial incentive to work hard or train for skilled jobs, and things would be very efficient.

So, if you remodelled society to be more equal as they suggested, and they're wrong about that creating social benefits, then society overall would be poorer, and the problems associated with absolute poverty would be correspondingly worse.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:36 AM on February 25, 2011

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