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Spirit levels and egalitarianism

I am a bit late to this debunking of a book called The Spirit Level, which I had seen on sale in paperback at a local bookshop. Via Kristian Niemietz – who writes at the IEA blog – I came across the essay attacking TSL’s contention that egalitarian societies – where wealth gaps are small – “almost always” outperform societies in which governments do not seek to equalise incomes.

I must admit that I nearly bought The Spirit Level to see if it did say anything of value, but it turns out to be yet another call for controls on our terrible materialism and consumerism, perhaps in the same vein as works such as “Affluenza”. Ugh.

20 comments to Spirit levels and egalitarianism

  • The Pedant-General

    Has anyone else noticed that Oliver James has not been on the radio recently to talk about how lots of wealth makes people unhappy?

  • Kevin B

    the theory that ‘more equal’ countries are healthier, happier and more successful

    I think this theory relies on the re-definition of ‘healthier, happier and more successful’ as ‘living in a socialist paradise’.

    In much the same way, conservatives are routinely categorised as mentally deficient by defining sanity as believing in state socialism.

    The basic message seems to be ‘Follow the tenets of our religion or go to hell’.

  • Cousin Dave

    Yeah, they always work the conclusion backwards from the premise: “Socialism is the ideal way to live; therefore, data proves that socialist nations out-perform others. QED.”

    And I get a chuckle out of the “more successful” part. When everyone is kept equal, how can you measure success? Or even define it?

  • AndyJ

    InstaPundit linked to the column in The Atlantic Monthly (Link)noting that “happines” results from higher taxes.

    Those who would be our masters can spin lots of reasons to increase control over our personal and economic lives. Why do -they- think we are incapable of managing our own affairs-?

    Perhaps because they have never been free to manage their own affairs-? Could they not even imagine a world of free humans, rich-poor-etc, acting in our own selfish best interests-?

    Probably not. They see a closed society and have decided to find new ways to be among the ones who make decisions about the lives of others vs being one of the recipients of the collective regulations and lies.

    “Happiness” now replaces safety and old age/health security as buzz words that let Foxy Loxy beguile a new generation of Ducky Lucky and Henny Penny’s that the sky is falling and -only- they have the correct answers.

    Free Markets and a Free People always go together. If they really want us to be happy(ier) then leave us alone. Reduce the rules, regulations, restrictions that suck away our energy and financial blood. Parasites see more as the only solution to their happiness, even if it kills the host.

  • Or even define it?

    That presupposes that the accumulation of money/things/wuffle or whatever the heck you want to measure is a way to measure success…

    While I wouldn’t want to live there myself (the weather is horrific) I have, generally, found Sweden to be a very pleasant place.

  • Paul Marks

    If this is the book I think it is, then even the BBC had a problem with it.

    For example it claimed that the reason Britain has a higher murder rate than Sweden is because Britain is a less egalitarian place.

    Accept that Britain does not have a higher murder rate than Sweden.

    The complicated maths is the book misleads people – they try to refute the maths, when it is the basic starting data that is wrong.

    Of course there are two assumptions in the book.

    Firstly that being more equal has X, Y, Z, effects – which could be just a coincidence (not a cause and effect thing).

    But also (and more importantly) that big government – high taxes and so on are what makes a county more equal.

    Not so – for example Sweden had less income ineqality than Britain even when its taxes and government spending were much LOWER than British levels.

    Even in the 1930s (when the future “SuperMac” was writing his “Middle Way” book praseing Sweden) Swedish tax levels (as a percentage of GDP were half the level of Britian.

    Sweden used to have a SMALLER government (as a proportion of the economy) than Britain did – it is only in the late 1970s that this switches round.

    By the way a big cause of inequality (there will always be inequality – but that does not mean that all inequality in income and wealth is natural) is MONETARY EXPANSION.

    The vast credit money “stimulus” that we have traditionally seen in Latin America (over the last couple of centuries) and now more and more in Britain and the United Stated (and so on).

    The money comes out from the Central Bank to the various favoured financial enterprises (this vastly favours rich people).

    Are the authors of “The Spirit Level” against Central Banking and “monetary stimulus” in general?

    If not they are wasting their time crying about vast income inequalities.

  • What Paul says.

    Re: Monetary Expansionism. Those who get first bites can enjoy the cherry. The rest of us just crack a tooth on the stone.

    Free Banking, NOW. Just as lower taxes and an end to borrowing is the most effective way to cut spending, Free Banking is, IMHO, the most effective way to get access to Sound Money.

  • Cousin Dave

    “That presupposes that the accumulation of money/things/wuffle or whatever the heck you want to measure is a way to measure success…”

    Not necessarily. Success could mean accomplishment in a variety of areas: money, fame, intellectual/physical achievement, or political power. A true socialist enterprise must equalize all of these things; by their own reasoning, it is inherently unfair that some people be better-known or more famous or more beautiful or have more political authority than others.

    (Of course, such a state of affairs is impossible. Marx ran into this problem early on and basically decided to ignore it, and nearly every socialist/communist/Marxist since has followed his lead. That’s because its impossibility exposes the lie that is one of socialism’s underlying tenants: that human beings are interchangeable parts.)

  • Laird

    To Cousin Dave’s point, the idea of complete equality, in every respect, was explored in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron. Worth a read by anyone who hasn’t already done so.

  • PeterT

    I do not find the notion that less income inequality within a society makes the average person (note – the mean person, not the median person) happier completely implausible. Much as we libertarians rightly emphasize the importance of absolute wealth, once a basic level of material wealth has been achieved a great deal of people’s happiness has to do with their relative position in society. If progressive taxation squeezes the income distribution then keeping up with the Joneses becomes that much easier. In addition, if achieving status through wealth becomes more difficult, then people might spend more time trying to achieve recognition in other pursuits, potentially ones they enjoy more than working at whatever job earns them the most money.

    So while I obviously don’t wish to defend these guys, I think the theory that compressing income distributions is fairly solid, if probably not that well thought through and clumsily implemented.

    As libertarians we tend to be more rational than the average person. We are also more individualist than the average person so of course care less about status and stuff.

    By the way, Sweden may be OK to visit in summer, but the group think and parochiality of the place makes it a hard place to live for very long without going nuts. I don’t think I could stand to live anywhere where you have to have a national ID card.

  • Tedd

    I think PeterT has a good point. It reminds me of something P.J. O’Rourke once said, to the effect that the important word in the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is pursuit, not happiness.

  • Cousin Dave

    PeterT, I have to disagree. Wealth-leveling philosophies play mainly to the preferences of small-minded people who are motivated primarily by jealousy and envy. In their circle, one achieves status by tearing others down. They are social vandals, and that’s not the sort of thing society should encourage. They contribute little or nothing positive to society, so who cares what they think?

  • TDK

    I’m finding it rather hard to reconcile the idea of libertarianism with the idea that it is the job of the state to make the people happy.

    ….. No, I can’t do it.

  • Laird

    Dave, I don’t think that PeterT advocated any “wealth-leveling philosophies”; he merely said that it is possible that societies in which wealth is more evenly distributed could in some sense be “happier” than in ones where the wealth disparity is greater. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that some state activity should enforce such an outcome. That would be a utilitarian argument, not a libertarian one.

  • Paul Marks

    Total equality – as in Hartley’s “Facial Justice” (making attractive people ugly by surgery – in order to enforce equality).

    The Enlish Literature establishment were so scared of this that they pretented it was a “satire on the medical profession” – they dare not tell the truth, i.e that it was an attack on “social justice”.

    Of course now they do not have to do that.

    Whilst a nonleftist writer is alive, and selling well, he has to be either attacked or “interpreted” by the left establishment.

    Once he dead – as the univesities tend to decide who the important writers were…. non leftist writers tend to get shoved down the memory hole (regardless of how well they wrote or how many people bought their works).

    I remember the late Chris Tame telling me that virtually every leftist “classic” (in all subjects) had been refuted at once – and normally in works much better reasoned than the “classic” work.

    It is just that the refutation is forgotten (because the left who control academia do not like it) and the absurd leftist work gets declared a classic – to be studied (or at least held in high regard – even if they have never actually read it) by generations of students of whatever subject it concerns.

    Of course it does not work the other way round – if a nonleftist writes a work it is the leftist refuation that is held up as the classic (even if it is full of errors of fact and argument) and the original work is pushed away – till it is forgotten (then the leftist “refuation” can be forgotten also).

    As always it is the leftist control of education that is the key problem.

  • YogSothoth

    Total equality – as in Hartley’s “Facial Justice” (making attractive people ugly by surgery – in order to enforce equality).

    That’s amusing, I’ve used the notion of “conjugal justice” to attack general egalitarianism in debates before (i.e. you’re ugly and never get laid, your “wealthy” neighbor has a beautiful wife and has sex all the time so to make things fair we force her to sleep with you once a week).

    It’s funny how the “social justice” folks react to such a rant but sadly “enlightened” isn’t a form of funny.

  • Cousin Dave

    “he merely said that it is possible that societies in which wealth is more evenly distributed could in some sense be “happier” than in ones where the wealth disparity is greater.”

    The problem with that is that, in a non-authoritarian society, it’s difficult to see how such a circumstance would ever arise. The only circumstance I can think of where it happens is when, due to some outside force, the social condition is universal poverty. In such a society, people are certainly equal, but it’s hard to argue that many of them are going to be happy.

  • Laird

    I didn’t say it would arise. It’s a thought experiment.

  • Spirit Level Egalitarianism is a spin-off product from of the more extreme end of Happiness Economics (mixed up with Malthusian doomsday-environmentalism). Some happiness economists have long postulated that increasing levels of consumption fail to make people any happier, as long as others around them raise their levels of consumption too. This is because they assume that the purpose of consumption is not enjoyment, but status-signalling.