Thursday, May 03, 2012

Green-Free Market Fundamentalist debate: On Inequality

In my debate with Mark Littlewood a free marketeer, I claimed  that Wilkinson and Pickett in the Spirit Level are showing that unequal societies suffer from all manner of social ills.

Mark contests this, saying:

ML: The Spirit Level cannot possibly be described as consisting of “sound scientific facts”. It’s now been conclusively debunked. The data used is partial, some of the data sources are questionable – and data has been omitted which does not suit their conclusions. 

RL: You're over-claiming here, Mark. "Conclusively debunked" it is not. It has been challenged by free market fundamentalists, as is to be expected, but it stands.

ML: I don’t know a single, serious economist who now believes their conclusions stack up. 

RL: Two things. For me, a "serious" economist is one who predicted the 2009 crash. All the others are just common economists, and if you get two of such economists in a room, you will have three or more opinions on any economic matter. Common Economists are not scientists, they are obscurantist ideological wranglers.

The second point is that Wilkinson and Pickett are epidemiologists, not economists. Epidemiology, unlike economics, is a proper science, and for real discussion we need to look to the community of epidemiologists. There is debate there, the consensus is not as advanced as the consensus over AGW in the climatology community, but among epidemiologists, the inequality-disorder link stands up pretty well.

There are multiple lines of enquiry, including civil servant and other animal studies. Here's an introduction to the idea that social status affects gene expression. 

ML: One analysis of their work shows  that there might just be a minor correlation between infant mortality and equality.

RL: This is Peter Saunders' Policy Exchange critique. His admission that infant mortality correlates with inequality is in itself is an important and significant fact. 
ML:  – but the rest is pretty much garbage (and if you produce enough scattergrams you’d expect to find some sort of correlation somewhere by sheer chance – for example, the rise of Manchester City football club over the last decade correlates pretty closely to a widening gap in incomes, but it certainly isn’t the cause of it). 

RL: Again, you are overclaiming. Very significant is the aggregated correlation of several indices, which shows a very tight adherence to proportionality between social dysfunction and inequality:

ML: Christopher Snowdon’s “Spirit Level Delusion” blows Wilkinson and Pickett apart

RL: Again, you are using charged, extreme language.  I have criticised Snowdon's approach here, and his methodology here. Snowdon is very far from "blowing W&P apart".

Another deconstruction of the preposterous assertions made by Wilkinson and Pickett can be found here

I’ve yet to come across any serious attempt to rebut Saunders’ or Snowdon’s devastating critique. 

RL: W&P's response to Saunders is here, and their response to Snowdon is here.

As a matter of interest, I produce an hypothesis here to try to explain why inequality should produce social stress.

So, in this debate between green and free marketeer, we come across a second instance where free market ideology comes into conflict with science - the first, of course, being the clash over climate change.

This is not unexpected, since there is a third clash - over the nature of homo "Sapiens". 

FMFs are individualists, that is, their philosophy is founded on the experience of man as an individual.
H. "sapiens" is  a social animal, plain and simple, without any shadow of doubt.

So FMF ideology is an idealism, an idea divorced from reality at its very inception. Therefore it is to be expected that it keeps clashing with the findings of science.


Anonymous said...

Slightly strange blogpost.

To claim the Spirit Level as "science" is just not credible (I hope your scientific claims for climate change are enormously more robust than the Wilkinson and Pickett pseudo-science!)

I think you're confused in your last paragraph. Free marketeers (I'm still not sure what a free market "fundamentalist" is, btw) do indeed see people as individuals - but not as atomised individuals. Of course, homo sapiens are social animals - I just don't think anyone really doubts this. The question is whether social interactions/networks should arise or be formed voluntarily (family formation, which clubs and socieites you join, which church (if any) you go to, which footbal team you support etc etc) or coercively through the state. Free market liberals strongly favour voluntary arrangements, statists lean towards more coercive arrangements.

DocRichard said...

Hello Anonymous

First, it is slightly strange for a serious commenter to post as anonymous. However, you may not be registered with Blogger, so I'll let it pass. One way round is to sign your comments in the comment area.

Second, "slightly strange" is a blanket derogation, free of rational content.

Third, Spirit Level is indeed science, peer reviewed (as opposed to Snowdon and Saunder's criticisms). You may not agree with or welcome the findings of scientists, but to say that they are therefore "not science" is unjustifiable.

4 Free market fundamentalism is a term introduced (afaik) by George Soros, for good reason. It is a fundamentalism, in that every subsequent fact or event is brought back for comparison with the basic central fundamental idea, that is that the free market is good, and anything that is not of the free market is bad.

5 Individualism is an associated idealism, where every event or fact is evaluated according to whether it relates to people acting as individuals, (good)or as societies (bad).

You illustrate this by denoting anything to do with the state as intrinsically coercive. While it is true that states can be coercive, and greens strongly resist this wherever we find it, as you can see for example with this blog's support for Arab Spring, it is not reasonable to characterise everything the state may do as coercive. Education, social services, the NHS, environmental health, waste management services are all facilitative. They may have coercive components (as for instance in the case of truancy, abuse, and fly tipping) but then free associations also take coercive when, for instance, a member does something to bring the association into disrepute.

It is interesting to look at what happened in Greece, where supporting the state with taxes was taken as a voluntary activity.

You may say that the greek state overspent, and fiddled the books. Sure. But my point still stands.

Overall, our claim is that green philosophy is based on ecology, which is a scientific discipline, whereas Free Marketism is an idealism, based on the belief that sinful men, competing against each other for that which is the root of all evil, will produce the best of all possible worlds.

Which is not exactly a self-evident truth.

Thanks for commenting, even if you are anonymous.