Once upon a time, an old Nordic legend tells, there lived a princess in Burgundy who owned a huge treasure of gold. One night the treacherous Hagen von Tronje, an advisor to the king, broke into the treasury and looted it; but not for himself, nor for anyone else. Hagen stole the gold so that the princess could not have it. He feared the power gold could buy, so he plunged it into the torrents of the Rhine.

In Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Hagen von Tronje has two worthy modern-day successors. Their book, The Spirit Level, is a radical plea for egalitarianism. Greater income inequality, they argue, is correlated with just about every social problem. But unlike traditional egalitarians, the authors’ aim is not to raise the material living standards of the poor through redistribution. They believe that in the developed world, absolute income levels have become largely irrelevant: “Once we have enough of the necessities of life, it is the relativities which matter” (p. 225).

A number of concerns have been raised about the data, the correlations and the jump from correlation to causality – but I would like to focus on an entirely different aspect. It is only towards the end of the book, with climate change entering the stage, that things come full circle. We learn that in order to avoid ecological disaster, “we need to limit economic growth severely in rich countries” (p. 226). Not that this is a problem: “It is fortunate that just when the human species discovers that the environment cannot absorb further increases in emissions, we also learn that further economic growth in the developed world no longer improves health, happiness, or measures of well-being” (p. 216).

So here’s how the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place: as long as inequalities exist, people will not be willing to give up growth, because growth contains a promise – we may see lifestyles more luxurious than our own all around us, but in the near future we too may be able to afford the things that our wealthier neighbours afford today. Wilkinson and Pickett believe that the reverse relationship also holds: if our neighbours lose their luxuries, we too will lose interest in them. Remember, it is the relativities which matter. Eradicate inequality, and the scourges of consumerism and materialism will disappear, and we will live happily ever after in a climate-friendly zero-growth economy.

So everything seems to depend on the hypothesis that we do not actually want high material living standards – it is just that as long as we are exposed to luxurious lifestyles around us, we are too terrified to get left out. Yes, some studies on “Happiness Economics” suggest that absolute living standards do not matter for well-being, while relative living standards do. However, many suggest otherwise, and some even suggest the precise opposite.

Given this uncertainty, we face the risks of rejecting the above hypothesis even though it is correct (a “Type II error” in statistics), or of not rejecting the hypothesis even though it is incorrect (a “Type I error”). Which is worse?

If we commit a Type II error, people are still free to look for non-political ways of leaving the “consumerist” lifestyle behind. But if we commit a Type I error, we may find out in ten or twenty years time that we have thrown tons of gold into the Rhine for nothing. In the old legend, the Kingdom of Burgundy fell anyway in the end. The vengeful princess substituted political power for financial power. It turned out to be far more destructive.

7 thoughts on “The new egalitarianism: Hagen von Tronje replaces Robin Hood”

  1. Posted 21/05/2010 at 11:04 | Permalink

    Whether the authors of The Spirit Level have a point or not, how on earth do they think we could unpick our current economy? An end to growth together with thoroughgoing income equalisation would have a huge impact on our way of life, in ways which I doubt they really grasp. Whole industries and associated jobs would disappear and the massive levels of redistribution which we already have would be unsustainable as the productive sector of the economy shrank. We would not all easily settle down into some comfortable middle class eco-friendly existence like The Good Life (and you will remember how Felicity Kendall and Richard Briers were so often dependent on the charity of their neighbours).

  2. Posted 21/05/2010 at 13:30 | Permalink

    The fact that levels of happiness have not increased since the 1950s has been taken as proof that better standards of living have not improved lives. It misses the point. People do not desire computers, cars, central heating or vacuum cleaners because their neighbours own them, but because they improve the quality of life. That they have not made us ‘happier’ since becoming widely owned is no judgement on their utility. It only shows that lasting human happiness depends on more than material possessions. Holidays, restaurants and going to the movies may only provide temporary joy, but that does not make them worthless. Nor can it reasonably be thought that we would be happier without them.

  3. Posted 21/05/2010 at 13:35 | Permalink

    It should also be said that the authors of The Spirit Level never use the happiness surveys to show that more egalitarian countries are any happier. This is an important omission in a book that claims life is better in more equal societies. If you plot happiness against inequality on a graph (as I do in The Spirit Level Delusion), there is no relationship. The same is true of the quality-of-life index. There is however—and contrary to Wilkinson and Pickett—a clear correlation between national income and happiness, even for the richest countries.


  4. Posted 21/05/2010 at 15:02 | Permalink

    So death by starvation is better than capitalism? That sounds familiar.

    The authors should try it on themselves before they recommend this egalitarian economic fate to others.

  5. Posted 21/05/2010 at 19:59 | Permalink

    It is not easy to ‘eradicate inequality’, even if one wanted to do so. Some people earn more than others, some people save more than others, some people live longer than others. I assume those facts would remain (possibly to a different extent from now).

    At least it sounds as if Wilkinson and Pickett, unlike many egalitarians, are not national socialists. But I suspect they would have to employ nazi methods to achieve their goals — assuming, as I do, that few people actually agree with them.

  6. Posted 23/05/2010 at 11:28 | Permalink

    That’s precisely my problem with the zero-growth camp (Spirit levellers + NEF + Layard&Co). To be fair: they do not see themselves as authoritarians, and would be surprised if that accusation was made against them. There’s a revealing passage about this in the NEF’s 21h-paper: They compare their proposal to the smoking ban, which was also hugely controversial while it was being debated, but which was suddenly widely accepted once it was in place. (Of course, some people are still opposed, but the point is that even for them the SB is just not a top issue anymore.) That’s why there’s no Tobacco Police raiding the pubs. They believe that no Consumption Police would be required either.

  7. Posted 23/05/2010 at 11:42 | Permalink

    But the interesting question is: How would the zerogrowers respond if their policies were implemented, and it turned out that they work more like alcohol prohibition in the US than like the smoking ban? I once read an article from the 1920s by someone lauding the introduction of alcohol prohibition, and he sounded a lot like a modern zero-growth enthusiast: He spoke of the dawn of a golden era with better family relationships, less crime & violence, better physical and mental health, spiritual fulfillment…
    Would they then say “Sorry guys, we were wrong. Never mind, continue with your growth stuff”? Or would we get a Reichskonsumpolizei, ‘temporarily’?

Comments are closed.