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 â€˜unequalâ€™ but not â€˜unfairâ€™. 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 Brackâ€™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-expectancyâ€¦. or â€˜I canâ€™t ever be happy because youâ€™re better looking than meâ€™.
But itâ€™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 â€œinsurance policyâ€, 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 Â£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.”