I wasn't able to attend the Fabian Society conference on inequality this past weekend, but it sounds like it was a very stimulating event. Reading reports of the conference on Next Left, I have been struck by how far some members of the government continue to articulate views that identify social justice, or 'fairness', with equality of opportunity. Since 'fairness' is emerging as such a central theme of Labour under Gordon Brown, I think it is important to be clear why this view is mistaken. The reasons why it is mistaken also help explain why it is not the view that many influential social democratic thinkers of the past, ranging from R.H. Tawney to Tony Crosland, have taken.
A good place to start is with Peter Mandelson's views, as reported on Next Left. Mandelson's argument, in essense, is: (1) the proper goal of social democrats is 'equality of opportunity', not 'equality of outcome'; (2) 'equality of outcome' is actually unfair because 'high performance' deserves 'high reward'; (3) higher taxation of those on high incomes is, therefore, not a 'litmus test' of fairness - for some of these high incomes are a fair reward for high performance.
The first thing to say here is that 'equality of opportunity' is itself an ambiguous concept - and, therefore, a slippery one. As I argue in my recent book on equality, the idea is sometimes interpreted to mean 'weak meritocracy': equal opportunity to compete for jobs in a discrimination-free environment. It can also be interpreted to mean 'strong meritocracy': people who start in different social classes should have equal opportunity to develop their talents and (then) compete for jobs in a discrimination-free environment. In the context of government policy and wider government discussion, we can be fairly sure that Peter Mandelson means something closer to 'strong meritocracy'.
One question which then arises is whether Peter Mandelson accepts what we need, in principle, to secure 'strong meritocracy'. As I argued in my blogs last week, it is very odd to state a belief in equality of opportunity, in the strong meritocratic sense, and then say little or nothing about tackling inequalities of wealth that undermine equality of opportunity in this sense.
But there are deeper phiolosophical problems in Peter Mandelson's perspective. It is, to begin with, quite false to present the choice as between 'equality of opportunity' and 'equality of outcome'. Few egalitarian philosophers endorse 'equality of outcome' (equality of income or equality of welfare) because they accept that the distribution of resources should be, in Ronald Dworkin's phrase, 'ambition-sensitive'. That is to say, the distribution should be sensitive to the different life-style chocies people make. If Smith and Jones have the same earnings potential, and Smith earns more because she chooses to work longer hours, or undertake productive investments that entail some risk, while Jones does not, then the resulting inequality is (at least to some extent) fair.
This doesn't imply an acceptance of 'equality of opportunity', however, even on the strong meritocratic view of what equality of opportunity is. This is because even in a strong meritocracy, people can have unequal income and wealth not only due to choice but due to inequalities in ability over which they have no control. Smith and Jones may grow up in a strong meritocracy which gives them equal opportunity to develop and apply their talents, but Jones may end up with less - perhaps a lot less - simply because he is endowed by nature with less of the skills or characteristics which can be developed into a marketable form. This is why Ronald Dworkin argues that a just distribution must not only be 'ambition-sensitive' but what he calls 'endowment-insensitive': it must not allow those who have more marketable talent to enjoy higher rewards than those who, through no fault of their own, are endowed with less marketable talent.
Why? Well, the moral intuition is the same as that which underlies the case for strong meritocracy. The strong meritocrat points out that it is not fair for Jones to have less lifetime earnings opportunity than Smith because of the accident of birth: of being born into one social class rather than another. But our natural endowments are also a matter of accident of birth. So, if the underlying, root idea is that it is unfair for lifetime earnings opportunity to be unequal due to accidents of birth, then a just distribution must go some way to correct inequalities in lifetime earnings opportunity from differences in natural ability as well as from differences in class background.
If we accept this view, however, then we simply can't say that high rewards at the top end of the earnings scale are just because they are a reward for higher performance - even assuming that they are indeed a reward for high performance. For high performance only 'deserves' higher reward to the extent that it is a reflection of choice rather than the good fortune of being gifted with more natural ability. Moreover, to the extent that high reward is a reward to high natural ability, taxes on high performance are a 'litmus test' of fairness.
So even under conditions of equality of opportunity, there is a strong fairness-based case for redistribution to rectify inequalities due to differences in underlying potential and ability - differences that will remain even in a perfectly meritocratic world. Of course, this consideration has to be balanced against the concern not to eliminate inequalities that reflect differences in effort and risk-taking, and finding the right balance will be difficult and always subject to dispute.
But the key point remains: there is more to fairness than equality of opportunity - as well as being much more to equality of opportunity than a lot of contemporary political discussion - with its neglect of wealth inequality - admits.