Duncan Brack on Equality

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I’m surprised this article on Equality by Vice Chair of the Meeting the Challenge working group Duncan Brack hasn’t provoked any discernable debate so far. No doubt everyone has had other distractions this week. I certainly don’t have time to deal with it in depth right now.

It is laying down the gauntlet to quite a serious ideological debate however. Brack’s argument is that inequality lies at the heart of the problems we face with health, quality of life and crime issues, while other commentators such as Andy Mayer are quite contemptuous of such notions.

I’m not saying I agree with every word that Brack has written – I certainly don’t share his warm feelings towards the egalitarianism of income tax – but I do think it is a serious challenge to the classical liberals within the party that they need to answer.

2 thoughts on “Duncan Brack on Equality

  1. I slightly silly spin on my fairness essay there James. The argument I’m making is to suggest fairness and equality are not one in the same. Inequality matters to extent that the reasons for the inequality are ‘unfair’, for example exploitation, denial of the opportunities to realise your potential, unequal treatment by the law etc. That is hardly the same as saying inequality doesn’t matter.

    Duncan’s essay is a serious and well researched attempt to put a different point of view and it would perhaps be an injustice to attempt to give a full response on this blog. But my initial concerns with his arguments on quick scan are these…

    I’m not convinced by the bold statement Duncan makes that “Life expectancy in rich nations correlates precisely with levels of equality”.

    Average life expectancy in rich nations seems to vary very little with the exception of Japan. Most are between averages of 76-80. Nor is the equality correlation as clear, the US is ahead for example of Denmark and Ireland and the Greeks only live 1.2 years longer than the Americans. While the distribution around that average may also be different, I’m not sure that some rich Americans live to an average of 100 is a social problem while I am sure that the cited death rates in urban slums most certainly are. The gap though is not the problem.

    http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2003/pdf/hdr03_HDI.pdf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality

    Clearly Duncan has been through a raft of inequality statistics and concluded what he wants to conclude however his certainty troubles me. These are complex issues with a vast amount of statistical noise.

    Secondly let’s assume he’s right and there is a clear link between absolute inequality and some negative social outcomes. What’s the scale of the difference and what exactly is being traded-off for what? The standard argument against equality systems for example is that they crush the human spirit, potential, the desire to seek a better life, enterprise, innovation and all of the things that go towards creating the opportunities and freedoms of the future as well as those enjoyed today. Sweden for example is hardly a hotbed of innovation, while Japan has a better claim even despite a decade of deflation. The US is probably the most innovative nation on earth, while the UK is a bit of a laggard. Something else is going on here.

    Thirdly his identified motor for the clear link – the stress and cortisol deprivation caused by unequal social status – is a decent articulation of the why envy tends to injure the envious rather more than the target of their bitterness. But while it might be uniform in his monkey case it’s certainly not a uniform response to low status in human beings.
    There are plenty of people for example that react by trying to work their way towards a better life rather than falling into despondency, crime and an early grave. Is stress from inequality the problem or the kind of stress caused by a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in controlled environments with no exit (some deposed monkeys for example tend to leave the group in the wild rather than hang around). Is Duncan then wrong to focus on trying to eliminate inequality rather than incorporating a sense of hope into the objectives of our social programmes? Can this be done, or do some people not want to try for a better life after decades of welfare dependency? Do some inequality prevention measures diminish the hope of achieving potential amongst the talented? Is that stressful? These are not trivial questions nor ones that necessarily lead to generalised conclusions about inequality for the whole population.

    I’m also not sure what Duncan/Wilkinson’s remark that “It is not the difference in outcomes that derives from that source that should worry us; rather, it is the inequality in outcomes that arises from the structures of society, which should, as far as possible, be eliminated”

    actually means, if anything meaningful. For example the key sources of inequality in a ‘fair’ society as Duncan accepts are “on people’s natural talents and proclivities”. That we allow inequality due to merit and hard work is a structural decision through mechanisms such as the free market, freedom of association, property rights etc. Which of these current structures or others is Duncan suggesting are an unfair source of inequality? How does raising higher rate income tax tackle ‘structural inequality’? It certainly doesn’t discriminate between unequal outcomes due to merit and those due to something less savoury like exploitation?

    In some places Duncan has lost me entirely… for example “A focus on the equality agenda will be essential to deal successfully with the pressures of competition from the developing world (particularly China and India) and economic migration – both clearly of benefit to world development and to the migrants themselves, but both also leading to downward pressures on wages for the low-skilled in developed economies, including the UK.”

    If we want to respond effectively to China and India some sense of focusing on where we have comparative advantage, reskilling and stimulating our business environment might be a little more relevant and likely to help people in industries losing out than encouraging them to develop a sense of fraternity with the international brethren that just put them out of work. Empathy’s a marvellous thing when you still have a job.

    In summary I don’t see much in Duncan’s paper that persuades me that unequal outcome is the bellwether for all social problems and solutions. I think it’s important we use research like this to understand why some welfare and social programmes fail in their objectives, but let’s not kid ourselves that the quest for more equality of outcome is a magic bullet or one that has no downsides.

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