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Suicide Kings

Two new studies claim that suicide rates are higher when conservatives are in power.

12:00 AM, Sep 30, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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BRITS ARE MORE LIKELY to kill themselves under conservative governments, according to a report just out from the department of social medicine at Bristol University. The study's authors claim that there have been, on average, 17 percent more suicides when Tories were in power during the twentieth century.

The report concludes that "roughly 35,000 . . . people would not have died had Conservative governments not been in government. This is one suicide for every day of the century, or more appropriately, two for every day that the Conservatives ruled."

The British report was actually an editorial (published without peer-review) in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which published a similar Australian study in the same issue. The Aussie group from the University of Sydney had similar findings, with a 17 percent increase for male suicide and a whopping 40 percent increase for females during periods of conservative rule. They concluded: "Conservative ideology traditionally is less interventionist and more market oriented than that of a social democratic ideology. From a Durkheimian perspective, increased anomie (decreased connectedness or inclusiveness), is thereby more strongly associated with conservative ideology."

"That is," clarifies Richard Taylor and his colleagues at the University of Sydney, "if hopelessness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for suicide, the regimes that offer less hope to the bulk of the population will also increase the probability of suicide in groups that have pre-existing or newly acquired risk factors for suicide."

It may all sound like junk science and jargon, but Mary Shaw and her fellow epidemiologists at Bristol claim to have "controlled for factors like changes in GDP, world war, drought, availability of sedatives, and other ecological factors" and still come up with a clear Tory/suicide correlation. They also controlled for the administration of Tory Edward Heath (1970-1974). During the four years he was in power, the suicide rate was very low, so they excised that data from their set, claiming that the introduction of natural gas into the U.K. during that period made it harder for the suicidal to take their own lives.

But, as Iain Murray, director of research at the Statistical Assessment Service says, "Correlation is not causation." Murray points out that other factors may be feeding both the suicide rates and changes in ruling parties. He says "depression and other economic factors create stressful, uncertain times which cause an increase in suicides, but these same stresses and uncertainties may have also brought conservatives to power."

All this would be true even if the data obviously pointed to a connection between high suicide rates and conservative governments, but they don't. Though the averages are higher for conservative administrations, when one looks at administrations individually, there are numerous exceptions to the supposed trend. For example, in addition to Heath, the suicide rate under Churchill was likewise low, while during Callaghan's Labour administration it was quite high.

After being accused of racism and sexism and balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that conservatism is now getting blamed for mass suicide. (Remember the flap last year when a Berkeley study found that conservative "aggression" gave Republicans more nightmares than Democrats.)

Charles Krauthammer once said, "Conservatives think liberals are stupid and liberals think conservatives are evil." Truer words were never writ. So as a public service to readers of THE DAILY STANDARD, we remind you to sleep well and try not to think too hard about the upcoming elections, lest you become just another statistic.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.