Sunday, 23 January 2011

Book Review: The Spirit Level. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. 300pp plus addenda. Penguin 2009

By August Pointneuf

The title is a word play on “spirit” with the implication that this means “an elevation of emotion”, perhaps “happiness” (which some understand to mean a certain quality of life.) The book then seeks to prove that similar (“level”) incomes in a society cause greater “happiness”, listing parameters of “anti-happiness” such as shorter life expectancy, more teenage pregnancies, greater social violence, mental illness, less trust and increased prison populations.

The reviewer will not contested that people seem to feel more at ease with their equals, and it seems that similar people intuitively group themselves. The authors, however, with deistic magnanimity, proffer a formula for making people “more equal”. This is a collection of naive (and oft failed) politico-economic interventionalist strategies.

It is far more likely that those populations which possess genetic and cultural similarities will be as near equal as it is possible to be. This will be mediated by similar thinking processes, expectations, entrenched symbolism, familiarity, closer communicative capacity and much more. The aspiration of this book, which is to demonstrate that a single factor can be engineered to benefit humans’ passage through life, is gravely doubted.

This is a bad book because it punts a narrow idea with misleading “statistical facts”, to garner a following. It is arrogant in that it ignores the complexities of human behaviour and counter-behaviour, and purports to be able to reduce this to a simplicity which is, instead, an absurdity.

However, like many books which eventually achieve notoriety, it is important because it illustrates the ease by which irrational cults are established – and how the mainstream media catalyse and accelerate such public opinion, whatever be their motives. This book had reviewers from the Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Economist, Independent, New Statesman, Glasgow Herald, Globe and Mail (Toronto), Nature, Irish Times, Financial Times, The Australian and (no surprise here) Socialist Review lathering it with praise, and so bringing their own competence and credibility into account.

“The Spirit Level” is long winded, repetitive and difficult to read. It warrants a chapter and verse refutation, but that is not the purpose of this review.

Written by two epidemiologists, this book reflects the narrow statistical approach which one would expect of them, without the biology to which the reader should be entitled, given that emotions are biological functions. Astoundingly, the book chooses to ignore (except by brushing references) the greatest experiment ever in attempting to increase human contentment by equalising incomes, the communist credo, and its ultimate failure.

Judging by the book’s wide reception (and the 350-odd lectures which it spawned) “happiness” is of profound concern to a great many people.

Currently the interest in the role of governments in providing “happiness” to their populations has been perked up by David Cameron who asked the Office of National Statistics to (attempt to) measure Britain’s “general well being”. This is not novel, and has often been addressed before, inter alia by Richard Layard (an economist) in 2006, which is quoted in this book.

More significant is that the importance of the “Pursuit of Happiness” is written into the American Constitution. Given the brevity of that document, and that it reflected primarily the will of a society (rather than a draft from the distance by which government is now separated from populace) this aspiration was, and should remain, important to societies.

Any attempt to analyse the mechanics of “happiness”, of course, lies in the deep realms of behavioural dynamics, and in the even deeper complexities of psycho-emotionalism.

The reviewer questions the authors’ assumption that happiness is quantifiable. Happiness is, almost entirely, a retrospective emotion. Therefore it lies embedded in vulnerable memories and emotions which, having been selectively filtered, are admixed with residua of nostalgia, grief, regret and fulfilment. Sexual “happiness” is likely to be a separate and highly specific mechanism of reproductive biology. The same applies to the “happiness” related to the satiation of hunger and thirst or the attainment of warmth, each of which needs to be independent and specific if it is to fulfil its biological importance. To attempt any type of broad scoring of “happiness” would be to measure a multiple of agglomerated variables, a useless exercise if the end-point of the endeavour is to extract, condense and formulate political actions for the future.

Our next step is, therefore, to consider what this book seems to be targeting, but has failed to do in a muddle of definitions.

The reviewer suggest that the inaptness of “happiness” as a parameter could be improved via the concept of “contentment”. Since contentment is probably only the negative measure of “absence of stress” the more tangible index could be stress. Stress has long been objectively measured (albeit crudely) both psychologically and physiologically. Therefore, despite its limitations of accuracy, using absence of stress would be an improvement on attempting to grasp the nebulous entity “happiness”. As it happens, examples given in the book that are claimed to “diminish happiness” (such as extended commuting) are all recognised stressors.

Thus the reviewer believes that any attempt to debate the quality of well-being of a population, should be an attempt to define and measure stressors.

None of this should be surprising, since it would seem self-evident that a profound purpose of any society, ideally mediated by its government, is to provide protection against threat. Some would say that amelioration of threat (the trigger of all stress) should be the only purpose of impartial government.

The authors attempt to explain what makes some societies more equal in their “happiness”, repeatedly exemplifying Sweden (and wider Scandinavia plus Finland) and Japan and it is here that the authors finally destroy all their credibility – when they venture into speculative fantasy, proffering the explanation that the Second World War stresses on Japan and Scandinavia produced this effect. (Page 242). Even in the simplest epidemiological terms this is invalid, since they have no comparative measure of their chosen variable as it was before the war.

The statistics in this book can be used, with validly, to demonstrate that the progressive loss of homogeneity in societies, produced by infiltration of alien cultures, is a significant cause of stress and its sequelae. The “wealthiest” countries will be those which attract the greatest number of alien immigrants, as do countries which have the pomposity to believe that lax immigration cannot damage their entrenched cultures. It would be expected that when poor immigrants enter a richer country the disparity in incomes would increase. Likewise, within any given country or state, when the poor are lured into richer areas (by increased benefits, lower taxes or employment opportunities) income disparity will also increase. Migration therefore causes disparities in income and, purely in parallel with that, a cascade of undesirable social consequences.

If it is accepted that the Japanese and Scandinavians have the most homogenous gene pools and (probably not coincidentally) the most stable cultures of the examples cited, then the soundest conclusion that can be extracted from the data presented in this book is that the more culturally and genetically homogenous a society is, so the least is the “inequality” and the least stressed the population.

There are even statements in the book which support this but which are ignored in argument, such as:

Emile Durkheim showed that suicide rates in different countries and populations were related to how well people were integrated into society and whether or not societies were undergoing rapid change and turmoil. (Page 78)

If Wilkinson and Pickett wish to recoup their scientific integrity, they could do worse than to establish some parameters for measuring genetic homogeneity and cultural stability in their sample societies, and then match those parameters against stress levels in those societies. It would come as no surprise if their conclusion was that the most genetically and culturally stable societies had the lowest “inequality”, the lowest stress levels and are the “happiest”.

The book ends with a begging letter,


SeaxneatOfEssex said...

An interesting article, I may have to read this book to see for myself.

If only the politicians would heed the warnings of those with common sense, then such ridiculous situations we find ourselves in right now would never have occured.

rebelliousvanilla said...

The purpose of life or of a society isn't happiness anyway. This is just the type of post-modern thinking that I loath. Comfort and happiness are things sought by materialistic selfish morons of today with no identity of their own. Just mindless, stupid consumers.

I'd like to ask Miss Kate, since the happiness of women went down each decade since the 1950s, should we undo all the feminist stuff? I mean, she's the one who values happiness, so she should support that.

Anonymous said...

Chris Snowdon has lots to say about The Spirit Level and well worth a read. Go to his blog "Velvet Glove Iron Fist" and search.

Valeofignorance said...

When government supposedly becomes interested in the happiness of its citizens you know there's something seriously wrong with society itself.

Perhaps the reason why government has suddenly become interested in happiness is that they know there is growing unease about what society is becoming... It's like the old saying - when everyone keeps talking about "peace" you know war is at hand.