Sunday 10 May 2009

If you're an egalitarian, how come you claimed so much in expenses?

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'.


Calix said...

Very interesting to hear a view from the perspective of political philosophy. The problem is that many of the New Labour politicicians grew up and came into parliament at times when excessive wealth was celebrated and not questioned. In fact, it was seen as the means in which all society can benefit. This obviously reflects on the indivdual.

History Scientist said...

I think that the worst sight is that of Hazel Blears trying to argue that she has done nothing wrong. It seems she has no conception of behaving well. She should resign.

Anonymous said...

Sadly it has never been a tradition in the Labour Party, but in some sections of the wider workers movement there did used to be the tradition of elected representatives taking up the wage of an average skilled worker and donating the rest to the party and wider labour movement. This would obviously have to include expenses too - standard class rather than first class travel, living in areas such as Peckham, Newham, etc rather than in Westminster or Kensington.

As an additional bonus it might remove career politicians and replace them with those who actually care about politics - and thus also increase the career-background-representativeness of parliament.

But somehow I can't see this happening when the Labour Party conference has had most of its democracy usurped by those who benefit from these perks.

Stuart White said...

seanambler: thanks for that. I think we could do with a bit more of that traditional labour movement ethics. It might be the only thing the Militant Tendency MPs got right, but on this point they were on the right lines!

Anonymous said...

"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?"

Surely, Stuart, you mean *raises* the question!?

Argh, and this, from you - a philosopher!

Good article though, technical language niggles aside.

I think too that there is another Cohen-angle to bring in here. The old tired Oxford Finals re-hash topic of ethos in a just society.

Cohen wrote about "the talented" - but can our society truly be just when our legislators see fit to apropriate wealth through devious means when already earning salaries 3 times the median average?

Indeed, since leaving Oxford and watching the present recession unfold, I've found Cohen's thoughts on the importance of ethos - and the actions of those who claim they must be paid ever more in order to do "socially useful" work - more relevant and pertinent than I ever did whilst attending your lectures. (Attending them in theory. I didn't really do lectures, I was more of a library student)

Stuart White said...

bad conscience: I hang my head in shame at 'begs the question'. Actually, your remark suggests that I have spent my entire life misunderstanding that phrase....I've always understood it to mean something like 'begs [that is, implores, demands] one to ask the question...' But I'm clearly wrong.

On your substantive point: I quite agree.

Anonymous said...

I always understood "begs the question" as meaning "to assume the truth of a conclusion in the process of arguing for that conclusion, by for example including the truth of the conclusion in a premise of the argument". I.e. it's a technical phrase in analytic philosophy.

Wheras "raise" the question means "[implores, demands] one to ask the question..."

I vividly remember Michael Inwood spending 15 minutes of a Nietzsche tutorial ranting about this issue, specifically in relation to Jeremy Paxman's mis-use of language.
That was either before or after he suggested that the answer to global warming was to replace rubbish bins with goats ("they eat everything"), assigned to each corridor of each college. (Seriously).

Sunder Katwala said...

on seanambler's good point

there is a much less reputable (and I am sure minority) tradition in the labour party/movement of "nowts too good for the workers" cynicism.

The Speaker has denied allegations from an MP that he said "I didn't come into politics not to take what's owed to me" which would fit rather precisely that particular disreputable attitude, were somebody (else) to say something of that sort.