A few years ago my colleague G.A. Cohen published a book called If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? The issue he explores in the book is this: If you are an egalitarian, and so believe that in a just society you would have something like a close-to-average share of income and wealth, how can one justify, here and now, holding on to more than this share? How can you justify living with what you acknowledge is a more-than-just share of resources when it is obviously well within your power to give the surplus away (to those less advantaged)?
Jerry Cohen's question has been in my mind a lot this weekend as I've mulled over the emerging details of MPs' expenses claims. Granted that we don't yet have anything like the full picture - we have had details of expense claims of only some MPs, and some of these details are challenged as inaccurate - it seems pretty clear that some Labour MPs have been claiming some pretty questionable expenses.
As Andrew Rawnsley writes in The Observer, many MPs have replied with the 'it was within the rules' line. But even assuming that it was, this is quite obviously not adequate as a reply. For what many people are questioning is not so much the legality of what MPs have done as its morality. And you obviously don't settle the morality of an action merely by showing that it was legal.
This begs the question: what sort of morality should we expect of MPs? And: what sort of morality should we expect to inform the behaviour of Labour MPs in particular?
Its here, I think, that the sort of question that Jerry Cohen asks is pertinent. As a Labour MP one should surely not act in a way that contradicts the norms that, as a Labour MP, one thinks should apply to society in general.
Now one claim made by some on the right (not all) is this: at base, all people are really just selfish bastards who never miss an opportunity to maximize their own income and wealth. Even very moderate social democrats, who hold to a less radical egalitarianism than, say, Jerry Cohen (or John Stuart Mill), must, in all consistency, hold that it is both possible and desirable for people to run their lives on the basis of a higher principle than this.
If a Labour MP uses the expenses system in a way that deliberately maxes out what they get then, I suggest, they are acting in a way that conforms to the right-wing claim. They are not acting in their own lives on the basis of the principle which they must, in all consistency, think society as a whole both can and should live up to.
It is the apparent failure of some Labour MPs to live up to this higher principle that I find so depressing in this fiasco. And it explains why those of us in the party should not be satisfied with any defences along the lines of 'I was acting within the rules'.