On Equality

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Last week I got some flak for stating that I support “equality” as a guiding principle. Indeed, in Andy Mayer’s case it turned into a full scale onslaught. Church of Leftology? Where did all that come from? Never has so much been read into the use of one little word. I’ve been meaning to return to the subject all week and have struggled to fit it in with, among other things, blogging about the Huhne interview, but it looks as if I finally have a chance.

What I aim to spell out in this article is that support for the narrow ideals of “meritocracy” and “equality of outcome” at the exclusion of equality in the round is inconsistent with the Liberal Democrats’ stated goals, with liberalism more widely and is ultimately riddled with contradiction.

The first point is easy. I need only quote the Liberal Democrat Preamble:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

That’s a pretty bald statement and it’s written on every single membership card. In the almost 20 years of the party no-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever lobbied to have this statement changed. In short, if you don’t support equality, you don’t support the principles of the Liberal Democrats. The End.

But while that may well be true, it is insufficient. It could be that all this proves is that the Liberal Democrats are not a true liberal party, but rather a rough halfway house between a liberal party and a social democratic one (which in one sense of course happens to be true). Is “true” liberalism therefore incompatible with Liberal Democrat values?

In a sense I suspect it depends on whether you consider yourself to be a social liberal or a classical liberal. In Reinventing the State, David Howarth however makes the point that even David Laws is a social liberal, albeit a “minor” one. Let’s look at a number of policy areas and explore whether the Liberal Democrat line leans more towards equality or equality of opportunity/meritocracy.

First of all, a simple one: democracy itself. Not only does the party believe in universal suffrage, it believes in a fair voting system. These ideals are rooted in equality, not equality of opportunity. We don’t argue that everyone should have an opportunity to have a vote. We have a real concern (don’t we?) about the fact that under first-past-the-post the value of your vote varies enormously depending on where you happen to live. We don’t limit ourselves to being concerned about everyone having the opportunity to live in a marginal constituency. We want all constituencies, ideally, to be marginal.

What about another absolute: human rights. Do we argue for a meritocratic rights system, where only the “deserving” have rights? This isn’t totally absurd question: a number of people in the Labour Party, including Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, do. The Conservatives want to tear up the Human Rights Act but they are happy to remain signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights – under such a system everyone would have the opportunity to exercise their rights. Do we agree with them? I don’t think so.

Do we think the police should only answer calls of distress from people with a clean criminal record? Do we think the health service should only be available to people who don’t smoke and stick to their ideal body weight (again not a completely hypothetical question as this issue does crop up time and again)?

Education is a thornier issue. Some Conservatives support Grammar Schools; David Cameron blathers on about “Grammar streaming”. Obviously the whole point of doing exams is that you have achieved some standard of merit. But is the Pupil Premium about equality of opportunity or a system of positive discrimination? If we were a party purely concerned with opportunity and meritocracy, how would such an idea not merely be policy but manage to get through our party conference with barely a squeak of opposition?

It strikes me that not only could you not maintain a liberal position while holding to a strict philosophy of equality of opportunity, you would get stuck into a mire of contradictions. As a philosophy it doesn’t tell you where to draw the line. At what point do you give up on people? At what point do you insist on leveling the playing field? At the genetic and embryological stage? At the toddler? The teenager? It’s rooted in the idea that there is a point in everyone’s life that you can point to, make sure the inequalities are addressed there, and then leave people to go off on their merry way without having to worry about what happens next.

The problem with such an approach is that there is no internal critique. As such it is all too easy to slip into complacency. Andy Mayer for example is extremely quick to write people off:

But there are entrenched privileges that are ‘unequal’ but not ‘unfair’. Looks, brains, talent, aptitude etc.

Sure there are fundamental differences in our genetic code, but there is a huge danger in exaggerating them. We know for example that identical twins, with different upbringings can end up having extremely different “looks, brains, talent, aptitude, etc.” (notice how imprecise all these differentials are). We understand – don’t we? – the danger of drawing wild conclusions about genetic difference, following the publication of spurious books such as the Bell Curve. From my reading of the nature versus nurture debate, at best the jury it out on which is the main steer; if anything nurture and the external environment appears to be winning through. You can’t ultimately answer a scientific issue through political philosophy; if the latter is to be meaningful it must be informed by the former.

Most meritocrats within the Lib Dems have leapt onto the issue of education as his point at which everything will fall into place. They are certainly correct that this is one of the most important areas that maximise equality of opportunity, but if you think that a good secondary education alone will set people up for life, you are sadly mistaken.

For example, I work in the public policy sector. I’m very conscious of the fact that small organisations like my own use internships to help bolster what we can do. The only reason why people do internships is because it gives them valuable experience and helps get them paid work. Yet people without access to free accommodation and board within London can’t afford to do internships. Result? The public policy sector is disproportionately filled with people from stable middle class backgrounds based in London and the South East. The best state supplied education in the world won’t change that fact, and the same rule applies to a whole range of white collar professions.

Andy Mayer and others have been very keen to attack my apparent support for “equality of outcome”. In fact this is the first time I’ve written that dread phrase on this blog. Equality of outcome is just as narrow and problematic a philosophy as equality of opportunity; if you solely concern yourself with outcomes you will only ever level down. But that does not mean you shouldn’t be concerned about equality of outcome. And it is here that Andy Mayer goes a bit bonkers. In attacking Duncan Brack’s writings on equality, he says the following:

Duncan Brack’s many magnus opi on this have attempting to obfuscate that clarity by claiming inequality in itself is such a barrier, particularly in respect of non-material matters such as happiness or life-expectancy…. or ‘I can’t ever be happy because you’re better looking than me’.

But it’s a circular argument. Inequality matters because it matters, therefore we must redistribute for the sake of redistribution.

This is a complete travesty of what Duncan has written. Duncan’s argument in Reinventing the State and elsewhere has been to look at the international evidence, observe that for example more equal societies tend to have lower incidences of crime and higher life expectancy and ask why. At no point does Mayer suggest that this leads to wrong conclusions, merely that it shouldn’t be looked at at all. Then, by way of misdirection, he starts raising the spectre of the Soviet Union, pointing out that the crime level there was low.

But the Soviet Union, as any casual viewer would attest, was not an equal society. While it espoused equality, the reality was quite different. While large sections of society were equally poor, they didn’t have equal rights or equal status. Duncan Brack doesn’t refer to the Soviet Union at all; so how is it relevant?

Mayer’s leap is to assume that a concern about equality of outcome is the same thing as pursuing equality of outcome at the expense of everything else. Yet no-one in the party as far as I’m aware has ever argued either for a narrow interpretation of equality or even that equality should be allowed to trump liberty.

And it isn’t just me who espouses a concern about outcomes. Nick Clegg this week made it extremely clear that he takes outcomes seriously. On the issue of diversity within our parliamentary party, he declared:

I believe this is our last chance to do it the purely liberal way, without any positive discrimination written into the rules. So I will take out an “insurance policy”, so we make sure we get it right. If, in 2 elections’ time, we have not sorted this out once and for all, then we will have no choice but to consider positive discrimination.

While I welcome this statement, it goes further than I’ve ever gone. According to Mayer’s logic, this makes Nick Clegg a fully paid up member of the “Church of Leftology

Finally, I’ve been castigated for supporting the redistribution of wealth as an end in itself. Once again, I would quote you the Lib Dem preamble:

We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity.

Why has the party taken such an unequivocal line on this? For the simple fact that if wealth is left to accumulate is will always block opportunities for others. Wealth, all things being equal, creates more wealth. A millionaire can outbid a typical graduate on a house without breaking a sweat and use the rental income from it to help buy more houses. The market is not self-correcting in this respect. Redistribution then is a fundamental corrective. Support for it only as a “last resort” is to call on us to waste time trying to avoid a fundamental principle of economics that has been well understood since Adam Smith.

Redistribution of wealth is not the same thing as redistribution of income. Speaking personally, long before the Lib Dems supported cutting income taxes I was calling for us to shift the burden of income and onto wealth. Policies such as the 50p rate on incomes above £100,000 fail to differentiate between hard work, good investment and sitting on inherited wealth. We should always encourage innovation and initiative; we should always discourage people from resting on their laurels.

Ultimately, a commitment to true equality means moving outside the narrow confines of concepts like “meritocracy”, “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” and instead appreciating the bigger picture. Ideally, equality of opportunity ought to produce equality of outcome. In the real world we are never going to achieve that ideal but the creative tension between the two can lead to progress. By contrast, an opportunity-centric approach in the way that Andy Mayer espouses is like a factory owner having a machine in which he believes he can get the best products by putting the finest raw materials in one end, but who refuses point blank to look at what comes out at the other end.

Similarly, confining equality to economic terms is to deny the wide range of areas in which it can and should inform policy; ways which the headbangers for meritocracy appear to be blind to. Human rights, fair votes and universal suffrage – all classical liberal ideas – are rooted in the Enlightenment and thus a fundamental belief in equality.

Liberals take it for granted that liberty is a complex and rich concept; so why this mad rush for reductionism when it comes to equality? Ultimately the two must inform each other. I’m not convinced you can have true equality without liberty: look at how inequality in Venezuala is becoming more stark since Chavez took the reins of power. Conversely, as L.T. Hobhouse put it: “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result.”

9 thoughts on “On Equality

  1. I think as liberals we ought to be OK with the idea that person A makes more money than person B because they work harder or had better ideas. In that sense, absolute equality of outcome would be an affront to natural justice. Perhaps fairness of outcome would be a better term.

    But you’re right, it would be equally daft to ignore outcomes altogether when designing a fair society. For a start, there are some pretty obvious injustices – the way that women and ethnic minorities are under-represented in Parliament or on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, for example.

    As a rule though I tend to believe that providing equality of opportunity is the best way to influence outcomes. I think that intervening directly in outcomes should be a tool of last resort – because to do so blunts incentives and as such limits people from reaching their full potential… not to mention enslaving people by conformity!

    The biggest problem we have in British politics is that no party has attempted more than a nod at solving the biggest problem facing equality of opportunity in this country. You mentioned it yourself – wealth distribution.

    Socioeconomic status at birth is still by far the biggest predictor of outcomes in education, in employment, and in politics. And from a point of view of providing equality of any kind, it simply stinks.

    The economist Tim Harford suggests in his book The Undercover Economist suggests a way that you could acheive radical wealth redistribution without affecting incentives – just give everyone a lump sum at birth to compensate for the opportunities (or lack of) that you expect them to have.

    That’s the sort of radical policy shift I would like us to be looking at.

  2. I think we broadly agree, Joe, although the slight problem I have with Harford’s idea in simplistic terms is that if you have lower socio-economic status you tend to have less spending power as well. Once again, if you don’t have policies to prevent the accumulation of wealth, then the wealthier will simply invest that lump sum and consolidate their advantage while the poorer will be forced to buy services off the wealthy. You have to tackle both ends of the spectrum, although not having read the book that may be what he says as well.

  3. Thanks for this. I’ve been half-heartedly trying to follow the ‘equality vs meritocracy’ debate, and reading this has provided my main moment of clarity about the whole thing.

  4. I would have to read the book again to see exactly what Harford said, but I believe the idea was to give a larger lump sum to those people who are expected to have fewer opportunities in life.

    The rationale being that people have no control over who their parents are or where they’re born, so it redistributes wealth without the unintended consequences you get from incentivising or disincenvitising certain behaviours. (I do however still agree with the idea of Pigovian taxes to correct externalities by means of incentives.)

    I don’t have a problem with people accumulating wealth during their lifetime, although I would certainly support a land value tax and other taxes to prevent the accumulation of unearned wealth. Also inheritance is a sticky topic in this context!

  5. If we cut though some of the “straw-man” puff I recall you complaining about on your comment to the piece this responds to, broadly you’re arguing that our party’s history and policy are informed by a variety of interpretations of what equality is, and that equality (however it is defined) is important.

    I agree.

    You then argue the Church of Leftology article is some form of reductionism on this. In one sense that’s correct, it’s was an argument against deliberately confusing social liberalism with socialism. Specifically it concerned the assault on meritocracy in the Huhne leadership manifesto and using equality of outcome as a target for solving social problems rather than removing barriers to opportunity.

    That confusion is fairly evident in the article when you start talking about whether it’s possible to sign up to the Liberal Democrat preamble if you’re a liberal rather than some fuzzy mix of liberal and social democrat.

    Evidently you can, it depends how you interpret what “balancing”, “equality” and “widest possible” mean.

    It is particularly incorrect for you then to suggest the second line means an “unequivocal” support for redistribution for the sake of redistribution.

    It can equally mean support for strong competition policies, taxing monopoly ownership and enabling micro-saving (as some examples).

    The strength of your conviction that you have the one true interpretation of the party’s ‘book of truth’ in your grasp does I hope enlighten you as to why I referred to Leftology as a Church.

    But then you go further in your reductionist argument and attempt to suggest that the original critique is reductionist to areas where there is no debate either between us or within the party. Specifically matters like human rights, voting and equal treatment by the law. This is dishonest of you.

    It’s also incoherent. If you apply a test of removing barriers to opportunity to votes (for example); then you end up with what we have which is equal access as the basis of a fair election. There are debates within that as to what specific support different groups need to enable that access, it is not a prescription for equal treatment, but the aim is to give everyone a decent chance to vote as the basis of a fair election. Not to force them to vote to ensure equal turnout.

    You are also being dishonest when you claim I refuse “point blank” to look at outcomes. Inequality of outcome can be a warning sign that something is wrong. What I reject is the notion that it definitively means something is wrong or unfair and thus we must strive for equal outcomes. I see it as a signal not a target.

    I don’t for example see it as automatically unfair that some people live longer than others. The problem is at the end where people are dying too young. The target is to do something about that. In the process we might all live longer (from a pro-fitness campaign for example) and make no difference at all to the life-gap, yet we would all be better off. What’s the problem with that?

    You are also I feel incorrect when you makes claims like “Ideally, equality of opportunity ought to produce equality of outcome”.

    This would only be true if we were all the same and our interactions produced equal outcomes. That is not my idea of an ideal world, more a prescription for clone-man Britain. Our differences and the unpredictable anarchy of reality produce many social problems, but they also create the stuff of life that makes it worth living. The “creative tension” you mention. It does not concern me as unfair that Mozart’s genius is something I do not have, I just enjoy the music.

    On diversity I’m glad we are both supportive of the academy idea. I think that stands a very good chance of encouraging diverse talent.

    Nick’s comment though I read differently to you. I think he sincerely believes the Academy will work. If it doesn’t after 6-8 years the party will “consider positive discrimination”. Consider and do are very different matters, especially in politics.

    On Brack’s argument I stand by the criticism. It still reads to me as picking the wrong target. Rather like arguing that warmer countries have better weather and happier citizens, therefore let’s encourage global warming.

    In respect of inequality of opportunity in the public policy sector, you’re right, but what’s the prescription from that? State intervention to ban interns? Quotas? Encouraging organisations to pay interns properly? Setting up trusts to support interns? My instincts are for the last two not first. Is that a difference between us?

    On nature vs. nuture, I reject the silly remark about writing people off, but agree with you that school education alone is not a magic bullet for an equal society. Nuture is also unequal , but that was the point. There are inequalities that can be addressed like good schooling and those that provide some challenge and probably cannot. Good parenting, mind-expanding holidays, and having nice friends are some examples of nuture-inequalities that it is extremely difficult if not counter-productive for the state to try and address.

    I am at least glad we have a having a frank exchange of views about the values of the party even it’s not been a major part of the Leadership campaign.



  6. There’s a lot of meat here, James, but can I follow up just one particular point.

    You criticise over-emphasis of the role of nature as opposed to nurture. But I don’t think this does quite what you intend for two reasons:

    1. The impact of nature doesn’t have to be large, any impact greater than zero will lead to unequal outcomes from equal opportunities. And why would it matter which is larger?

    2. Most of the nurture that we experience comes from the family, the same place as the genes. (And this is a good thing.) So this would suggest that the effects of nature and family-nurture are largely indistinguishable. And so it is no good basing an argument on whether one is larger than the other.

    Of course talent doesn’t equal merit which doesn’t equal “what one deserves”. But although not equal, these things are related. That they are unequal justifies some redistribution, and redistribution which promotes opportunities generally will have more leverage and be better value than many other kinds of redistribution.

    But equally it doesn’t justify concluding from unequal outcomes that there is a problem that the state ought to try to solve – it should not attack family nurture. Yes, Brack gives us a lot of stats correlating lower inequality with other better outcomes, without asking about the direction, if any, of causation.

    My real problem with Brack is not the argument for more redistribution, which might be justified, but his setting up a standard by which more redistribution will never be enough.

  7. Andy, a few points in response:

    First of all, I have never claimed that the party preamble is a “book of truth” or that it isn’t open to interpretation; indeed by pointing out that it was the result of a merger between a liberal and social democrat party was that we shouldn’t look at it uncritically. I’ve merely pointed out what it says; something which appears to enrage you. It is you who goes around labelling people you disagree with with epithets like “socialist”.

    The fact that you now state, unequivocally, that you support the idea of equality as opposed to merely meritocracy, means that you have ceded a lot of ground, further reinforced by your moderation of tone.

    You cannot however argue that open to interpretation can mean wildly going off topic. “The widest possible distribution of wealth” means precisely that; a party with that in its core beliefs cannot be content with individuals accumulating wealth, and thus power, over other individuals. Ultimately, that isn’t an argument about equality at all, but liberty.

    Your claim that you can talk about equal votes as being all about opportunity is fanciful; either we believe in votes being equal or we don’t. Nor are we unconcerned about turnout (what the hell does “equal turnout” mean anyway?).

    You can hardly complain about me accusing you of being disinterested in outcomes when every time anyone mentions them you start blathering on about the Soviet Union being an equal society (which it manifestly was not in any case). If you don’t wish to be accused of that then engage with the argument rather than throwing mud.

    On Nick Clegg’s academy idea, I don’t doubt that he believes it will work – I believe it could work as well (although it has to be paid for somehow) – but to claim that he is only interested in “considering” positive discrimination if that fails is to ignore his previous sentence: “I believe this is our last chance to do it the purely liberal way, without any positive discrimination written into the rules.”

    Ultimately, the area we will have to agree to disagree on is the emphasis we put on diversity or universality. I don’t dispute the fact that people are diverse or that genius is a rare quality, just that neither of those facts should be used to justify inequality ex post facto. We should be constantly asking ourselves if inequality is a result of unavoidable facts of life or unfairness. Concepts like “meritocracy” – rule by the worthy – hardly invite us to look at this deeply.

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