Spirit-levelling the poor

One of our recent guest speakers criticised the IEA for misrepresenting the message of the influential book The Spirit Level. He referred to an IEA invite which read: ‘many amongst the left have welcomed recent work that has suggested that we should be less concerned with eliminating poverty than eliminating inequality – even if this makes the poor poorer.’ Our speaker assured us: he had personally spoken to one of the authors, Richard Wilkinson, who confirmed that The Spirit Level was saying no such thing.

In a trivial sense, this is true. The sentence ‘We want to make the poor poorer’ does not appear anywhere in The Spirit Level.

But the Spirit Level authors say explicitly that their ultimate goal is the establishment of a Steady State economy, which means forcibly ending economic growth. Why? Because they believe that beyond a certain threshold, economic growth brings no additional benefits (‘Further economic growth in the developed world no longer improves health, happiness or measures of wellbeing’, p. 218-219), but imposes immense costs, by fuelling global warming. Indeed, there are passages which one could read as a plea for economic shrinkage: ‘Carbon emissions per head in rich countries are between two and five times higher than the world average. But cutting their emissions by a half or four-fifths will not be enough: world totals are already too high and allowances must be made for economic growth in poorer countries’ (p. 217).

The authors also reject the notion that climate disaster can be avoided by increasing energy efficiency: ‘Imagine that a new generation of car engines is introduced which halve fuel consumption. Driving would then be cheaper and that would save us money, but it is money which we would almost certainly spend on something else. We might spend it on driving more, or buying a bigger car, or on more power-hungry equipment – perhaps a bigger fridge-freezer. […] As cars have become more fuel-efficient, we have chosen to drive further. As houses have become better insulated we have raised standards for heating […] Because energy-saving innovations mean that we can buy more, they are like economic growth’ (p. 223). Note that in the authors’ view, this is a bad thing.

Regardless of what you make of The Spirit Level – you cannot pretend the book was a manifesto for improving the living standards of the least well-off. How could it be? If you believed material consumption was nothing else but a self-obsessed status hunt – and the sub-chapter on ‘consumerism’ shows that this is exactly what the authors believe – then why would you want anybody to have more of it?

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

5 thoughts on “Spirit-levelling the poor”

  1. Posted 15/03/2011 at 10:24 | Permalink

    As the author of the criticised sentence, let me explain myself. Richard Wilkinson could criticise me for an incomplete sentence but he cannot criticise me for being wrong. I had to draft a very brief flyer and the flyer cannot explain everything. The question that the phrase begs is clearly “poorer than what?”. Poorer than they are now or poorer than they would have been if other policies had been followed? The second interpretation is an unarguably valid interpretation of The Spirit Level (unless we also open the debate about what is meant by “poor” which was really what the evening seminar was about).

  2. Posted 15/03/2011 at 10:43 | Permalink

    You are right in substance, Kristian. But it is important to use words accurately and not give away debating points by carelessly overstating things. I should know, Ive done it often enough!

  3. Posted 15/03/2011 at 14:05 | Permalink

    If it were me I would not have conceeded any aspect of the point at all. Whether the authors of the Spirit Level (and those who support enforced equality) actually advocate making the poor poorer is immaterial. The point is that the effect of their ideas, if transformed into policies, would be to make the poor poorer with all the negative consequences that entails (they also completely ignore the negative impact of making the richer poorer, both on the richer themselves, and on society as a whole).
    The problem with most ‘statists’ is not that they wish to impoverish or otherwise cause harm but that the consequences of their policies would be to impoverish people or otherwise cause harm. Ironically, they invariably believe that the aim of all ‘libertarians’ is some sort of malign effort to impoverish the poorest or have no regard for them whatsoever, when in fact any right-thinking libertarian is deeply concerned for the fate of the poorest.
    My issue with the Spirit Level et al is less that they advocate equality (which is problematic, but if an individual wishes to give away their wealth that is their choice) than that they advocate coerced equality via state redisribution of wealth and income and not that they would wish people to forgo economic growth (which is foolish, but if people choose to forgo economic growth willingly, that is their choice), but that they wish the state to prevent economic growth.

  4. Posted 31/03/2011 at 15:08 | Permalink

    Whig is correct. It is the coercion of the individual that is implied by the book’s thesis that is the most objectionable feature, although other, consequential disasters from such levelling are also worth adding to the indictment.

  5. Posted 13/04/2011 at 07:50 | Permalink

    Great post, thanks!

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