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The Equality Mistrust

Posted by softestpawn on October 5, 2009

Inequality within a society, we are sold, results in all sorts of Bad Things such as more and greater violence, poorer health, and more alcohol problems.

At first sight this would seem a bit odd. Marginal, subsistance societies where everyone is equally and awfully poor have infamously low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates. As a society’s wealth increases its health increases, and we can see this crudely with GapMinder; both over time and over space, richer societies show no obvious general trend to be any less ‘equal’ than poorer ones (in fact possibly maybe a bit the opposite), and do show an obvious trend to be healthier:


The Equality Trust

Still, the Equality Trust (“Because more equal societies work better for everyone”) are trying to make a case that ‘at some point’ – which just happens to be now in the UK and other western worlds – we can stop working on progress and instead focus on being fair. Because there are some indications that rich societies that are less ‘equal’ are also less healthy, more violent, etc:

Infant Mortality vs Equality

And if you click on that you can look at various other handy graphs.

Lots of skeptical alarm bells ring: there are no units on some of the graph axis, so what are the scales? There are few dates. Countries appear on some graphs and not others. And there’s the general background that “unfairness is bad, mkay?

In fact all that these graphs tell us is that some countries are quite consistent. The USA tops out as the least equal and most nasty, Singapore as the most equal and most nice, Japan as both equal and nice. It seems quite probable that there is something else at work here, such as differences in cultural approaches to wealth and health and social responsibility and so on.

Still, they Trust claim that “Compelling new evidence shows that large income inequalities within societies damage the social fabric and quality of life for everyone”. Presumably the well-established evidence that more income improves the quality of life is now old and optional.

Physical health vs inequality

So let’s have a look at a sample of their evidence. The paper on the first page in their evidence page, by Wilkinson and Pickett, Income inequality and population health: a review and explanation of the evidence has a title that tugs at those barely stilled skeptical alarm bells again: they are setting out to show something, not investigate. A reason to be skeptical, but not to disregard.

The abstract simply counts papers that they’ve found. There’s no indication of any methods to compensate for positive publication bias, or indeed any ordinary collection bias. They just went looking for papers, and found 155.

They then count papers and bin them according to ‘supporting’, ‘unsupporting’ and ‘partially supporting’. There’s no indication of scaling or weighting factors. So a paper that looks at one factor in a specific environment is either ‘supportive’ or ‘unsupportive’. A paper that considers more complex relationships is likely to find a bit of both, and so will be ‘partially supportive’. If you throw those inconvenient complicated relationships away, and look at just the simple positive findings vs the negative findings, then it should be completely unsurprising that 70% are positive, simply due to publication bias (though a ‘supportive’ positive finding is not necessarily the same as a positive result that biases publications).

It’s not at all right, on the basis of that review, to conclude that the literature shows even a link (let alone a causal link) between inequality and Bad Things. In the paper they go a bit deeper than that, but not by much. The studies included were from three previous reviews, electronic searches and informal contacts, thereby introducing various collection bias.

Self-enforced relationships

There’s an interesting circular argument on page 4: Wilkinson (in another paper) points out that communities across larger areas show more correlation between poor health and inequality. He argues that this is because people can see further across differences in that community, and so see more inequality, and we should measure across wide areas to capture this. By then showing that studies of communities across larger areas return such correlation, he thinks he bears out his argument that was formed as a possible explanation for this observation…

Smilarly at the bottom is an even more circuitous argument: Inequality relates to health as a measure of the social distances which are responsible for class differences in health (ie, the social distance here is measured in healthiness). Lo and behold, if you measure those social inequalities in that particular way, you will get differences in health. Lo further and behold more, the greater those social inequalities are measured to be, the greater the differences in health. Which is what you defined it as being in the first place.

On Page 7 they assume that income ‘inequality’ is the reason why Mr Average Black in the US has four times the income of Mr Costa Rican but a lifespan shorter by nine years, and ignore a host of other social factors.

Finally – at least as finally as I got to – was that “the relationship between income inequality and homicide shows beyond doubt that inequality has powerful psychosocial and behavioural effects” (my emphasis). This is not only very poor science (correlation does not show anything beyond doubt, certainly not cause), but is also wrong: this paper (“Income Inequality, Poverty, and Homicide across Nations “) says homicide depends on absolute wealth, not equality. Although this one (“Income inequality and homicide rates in Canada and the United States“) says otherwise.

Some speculation & Some other evidence

We should in fact expect to find “fairness” as some kind of indicator, or proxy, for health. When comparing countries with similar average income, a greater spread probably means the poor are poorer and the rich are richer. The poorer then will have more of the illnesses associated with poverty, while the richer benefit from much smaller improvements in health, and so countries with a greater spread in income will have worse overall health compared to others with the same overall wealth.

All we are seeing is the diminishing returns of increasing wealth on increasing health. It’s not the inequality that causes health and crime, it’s that less equality probably shows the presence of poorer people, who have worse health and often more crime.

A proper way to measure whether societies are ‘doing the right thing’ is to compare like with like. How are those who earn $1000/month “buying power” in the US comparing with those who earn $1000/month “buying power” in Nigeria, or Singapore, or the UK? As a society gets richer – and supposedly less equal – how do the people in the bottom quartile do as it does so?

If we take a look at gapminder, and compare the Gini ‘inequality index’ with life expectancy or infant mortality (do press Play to avoid being diverted by particular years), then you can see that there’s very little correlation in general between inequality and poor health:


Similarly compare the “Income share by the lowest 20%” with life expectancy and there’s little correlation.

Only very specific years show the correlations the Equality (Mis)Trust claim, and are quickly swamped by other effects as time goes on. In fact, we can pick the year 2000 and show that richer societies are more equal:

Income Vs Gini (2000)

What is more clear is the way that different parts of the world tend to sit in similar areas of the graphs. Cultural attitudes again perhaps.

What were they thinking?!

So why does this poor analysis turn up as ‘evidence’? Well the language seems a bit of a give away:

“Because more equal societies work better for everyone”

“Compelling new evidence shows that large income inequalities within societies damage the social fabric and quality of life for everyone”

“Great inequality is the scourge of modern societies”

This is the “It’s not fair” brigade dabbling in a bit of pretend science to bolster their dogma. Anyone turning up with that old mantra and a clutch of citations to prove it is going to have a lorryload of skepticism dumped on them.

Their case avoids comparisons with poor countries by assuming that ‘now we are rich and healthy’ we can take stock and think about doing things differently. But if we compare only the rich countries, the relationship is not as obvious or as large as they claim, which raises questions again about the scales of the axis used:


Even so, only most of us are whole, rich and healthy, and it’s not clear quite how rich we could be. In 50 years time, say, with free personal fusion power, no physical disabilities, no cancer, a healthy lifespan of 120 years and personal jetpacks (at last!) we might look back with pity at the relative poverty and disease-ridden state we are in now.

All the same we have some features that absolutely poor states don’t, including a relatively carefree life. We don’t start with the spectre of externally-caused starvation and death hanging over our shoulders, which tends to produce a work ethic dedicated to improving life, a sort of ‘eye on the horizon’ and a drive to work to get richer and safer.

Instead we can support whole communities of ‘idle’; that is, we can afford to pay people to do nothing, and it’s infamously depressing and frustrating to be part of those communities, and famously hard to get out of them.

It may be that we should look at the outliers in those graphs and examine potential causes; Scandanavians for example attempt to ensure full employment rather than compensate for unemployment via the dole, and that may be how they assure better equality and better health.

Wealth makes health

But in the meantime, the idea that greater inequality may sometimes be a proxy or indicator for the presence of lower absolute wealth in a society is trivial, and should not divert us from working to make everyone richer.

In particular, we must be wary of any argument that to reduce Bad Things or increase happiness, we could reduce the inequality by, say, limiting the income of the richer part of society, rather than by increasing the wealth of the poorer. As we can see above, health improves with wealth. The only happiness that such policy improves are of those who have no interest or ability to become rich, at the expense of all those who have, including the poor who are working to become rich.

The evidence remains, as can be seen above, that people living in an unfair rich society are much better off than those living in a fair poor one.


2 Responses to “The Equality Mistrust”

  1. Knee jerk reaction:

    People are obviously not equal. Neither in nature nor nuture.

    Some are smarter, healthier, faster and so on than others. Some are brought up pious, some criminal, some hardworking, some idle, some questioning, some receptive, some dogmatic, some altrustic and some violent. Most are self centred to a large degree.

    Attempts to provide equality of opportunity are laudable and arguably morally right. Equality of Opportunity will not result in greater equality in 1st world societies; because people just are not equal.

    For any chance of equality on the level the ET seems to be alluding to, all people within their sample (the entirity of society) would have to share a selfless, collectivist moral and philosophical standpoint. Some persons are too self centred to give up their every advantage for the sake of societies wasters, no hopers and ne’erdowells. Some people lack the intellectual capacity to appreciate the morality and philosophy required. I do not want my hard work to be wasted on evil persons and so on. I know that this morally weak in and of itself; but there you are. Given the diversity in our ever expanding population, equality has, for me at least, ceased to be a laudible goal. Not least because it is blatantly unachievable.

  2. Arne Klaus said

    Knee-jerk reaction, indeed.

    Inequality, as it is most commonly understood, refers to dough, wads of $, cash – not intelligence or potential, but definitely opportunities presented or denied because one can afford education or decent health-care.

    The “upper crust” frequently cite in-bred superiority as moral justification to pontificate and rule by the grace of God, but people can be filthy rich and stinking stupid at the same time. I reserve a generous portion of disrespect for “poor” folks born with the family silver up their asses.

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