Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
, published last year in the United Kingdom, has attracted a great deal of attention in Europe without yet being the subject of many debates in America. Its thesis, that economic inequality is a bad thing, is not the freshest tomato on the shelf. The book's claim on the attention of opinion makers is, rather, that the balefulness of inequality can be demonstrated statistically. Comparing data from several nations, and then looking at differences in the 50 states of the U.S., Pickett and Wilkinson conclude that "large income inequalities within societies damage the social fabric and the quality of life for everyone." That is, they find a strong, positive correlation between economic inequality and each affliction on a long list of social problems, including: illnesses, both physical and mental; drug abuse; violent crime, and teenagers' pregnancies. These problems are so severe and extensive that even prosperous people in unequal societies would be better off after income redistribution, since they would enjoy their diminished but still considerable personal wealth in safer, healthier societies that were more congenial and harmonious.
Pickett and Wilkinson argue that more equal societies have greater cohesion and higher degrees of social trust, which helps lubricate all kinds of social, political and economic transactions. In the website
that accompanies their book, Pickett gives an interview
in which she says:
As human beings, we're very sensitive to social relationships. We have an evolved psychology that makes us very aware of how others judge us. If you think about it, some of the most difficult things to do, or the most embarrassing situations we're in, are ones where others can judge us negatively.... If we're looking at societies where the social distances between people are bigger, as they are in more unequal societies, there's just much more potential for all of us to feel that we're judged negatively by others . . .
The goal of The Spirit Level
, then, is to incorporate this non-judgmental sensitivity into a wide range of public policies and social practices. Which makes it all the stranger that Pickett and Wilkinson, after responding to some books and newspaper articles criticizing their work, recently posted this peevish announcement
on their website: "Almost all of the research presented and synthesised in The Spirit Level
had previously been peer-reviewed, and is fully referenced therein. In
order to distinguish between well founded criticism and unsubstantiated
claims made for political purposes, all future debate should take place
in peer-reviewed publications."
As Brendan O'Neill points out
, this new stipulation is dubious intellectually, since a lot of crap gets published in peer-reviewed journals while intelligent things show up in magazines, newspapers and even, occasionally, blogs. Given Pickett and Wilkinson's ultimate objectives, however, what's really striking is how anomalous their position is politically
. They come across as notably callous about the psychological wounds they're inflicting on people who can't get their critiques of The Spirit Level
into a peer-reviewed journal. What could cripple one's self-esteem more lastingly than being snubbed by two of England's leading egalitarians? Even the term "peer-reviewed" would echo comfortably in the halls of Versailles. The peers of the realm of intellectual discourse get to decide who is fit to join their ranks, and who is unworthy even to talk with them. Pickett and Wilkinson won't second-guess the judgments of those peers - their
peers - and won't waste their time responding to the riff-raff who were sorted out during the vetting process.
As Pickett and Wilkinson's countryman Samuel Johnson said nearly three centuries ago, "Sir, your levellers wish to level down
as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up