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The Spirit Level – More Toynbee Twaddle

Tom Winnifrith
Saturday 7 July 2012

I am urged by a thoroughly delightful reader from Bristol to check out a book published two years ago called The Spirit Level, the central thesis of which is that the greater inequality of wealth within any given society, the greater the chronic health and social problems caused to both rich and poor within that society. And Britain, the book claims, is suffering from this problem badly. Apparently Call Me Dave and Ed Miliband think it is a great book and have said so publicly. I am not sure what Bono thinks but my guess is that he thinks its fab. And Polly Toynbee? The Old harridan cannot get enough of it – she misquotes it liberally to further her own hyprocital and misguided agenda. So using the Toynbee test - anything she supports must be wrong -  the book must be a load of twaddle. It is.

I am not sure where to start with the theories of Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett. According to Wilkinson “the countries with the biggest gap between the rich and the poor have the highest level of whatever health and social problem it is we're looking at." They add that Unequal societies "have more violence, they have higher teenage birth rates, they have more obesity, they have lower levels of trust, they have lower levels of child well-being, community life is weaker and more people are in prison." Right. So the UK has more teenage pregnancies that a country the dynamic duo like such as Holland or Sweden. Is that because we are unequal or because the Dutch/Swedes have a morality based element in sex education and in the case of the former still something of a conservative Catholic culture while in Britain sex education is all about how to stick a condom on before you shag with no element of “do you want to shag, should you shag?” Does Britain’s benefits system act as an encouragement/discouragement to teenage pregnancy? Discuss.

I do not know the answers – there are numerous cultural factors at play but I am not stating that there is only one factor at play – Wilkinson/Prickett/Toynbee/Call Me Dave are. The Scots have a lower life expectancy than the UK as a whole, or in fact than the Ukraine. Toynbee et al put this down to inequality. I would put it down to the fact that far too many Scots are obese, heavy smokers and drink too much. This has, it happens, been something of a long term pattern North of the Border irrespective of economic inequality. Perhaps the fact that Scotland has become a welfare addicted nation where far too many folks opt not to work might have something to do with it.

Welfare dependency is bad for your health. Trying to make folks more equal does not stop this dependency – simply handing out more cash to the unemployed merely makes them more dependent. Toynbee being Toynbee goes one step further claiming that inequality makes Society less happy. To be fair to The Spirit Level it does not make that claim it only implies it. There is a good reason not to make that claim. It is palpably false. Without wanting you to think that I was becoming a chartist, I bring you two charts which you can find anywhere on the internet.

The first plots “happiness surveys” against income inequality country by country. There is no real correlation The second plots happiness against average income and, boy what a surprise, the richer a country is the happier its folks are. Oh dear. It is so very Toynbee that she obsesses about ensuring that poor people are less fat or that their daughters are getting up the duff less often that she forgets that what folks want to be, above all, is just happier.

Because that does not fit her agenda nor that of others who were born into privilege and have never had a proper job like, er... Call Me Dave and Ed Miliband. Because all three of them have signed up to the left’s definition of poverty. This was oddly the subject of my Oxford entrance paper “Is poverty relative?” Today all three political parties in Britain accept that it is. You are poor if you earn less than a third of the national average wage. Absolute bollocks. Take the “given” view to extremis and we could abolish poverty at a stroke by creating a redistributive tax system that ensures that we all earn the same after tax wage.

Pol Pot abolished poverty in Cambodia. He appears to have been a fairly well nourished chap as were the other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. But 99% of the country earned little or nothing as they were butchered in the killing fields. But since nearly everyone earned little or nothing the national average wage was not a lot more than little or nothing and as such no-one was, as we define it today, actually poor. Yes this is an extreme example but if a theory cannot stand an extreme test if it is taken to its logical conclusion it is flawed. If you look hard enough on the internet you can see data on what percentage of British kids had shoes to wear during the past 120 years. The number increases sharply after the introduction of the welfare state in 1910 and by Word War Two nearly all kids had shoes. Today, of course, all kids have shoes and most – even if their parents are on welfare – have branded sneakers.

No-one in Britain need starve. 99% of us have TVs, etc. Offer the lot of a “poor” family in 2012 Britain to a “poor family” in 1930s or 1000 Britain and they would jump at it, they would think they had won the lottery. Surely what Toynbee etc should concern themselves with is the absolute standard of living of the poorest in Society which, by all measurable means, has improved steadily. The question is how is it best to fund the poor and that can only be driven by increasing average income (i.e. the Nation’s GDP) which should also, it appears, make us all happier.

And so how do we achieve that? Well try doing a search for the countries where GDP has grown fastest and most consistently over the past two decades. Look at the correlation between that growth and a) income inequality and b) the size of the Government in terms of tax take. Polly will not like the answers. My Bristol reader will not like my response to the Spirit Level and is unlikely to follow me on twitter when she gets around to creating an account. But a) I cannot agree with Polly Toynbee because she is always wrong and b) on this matter she is especially wrong.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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