There's an interesting exchange of views between James Purnell and Jon Cruddas in today's Guardian, marking the start of Demos's new project, Open Left.
One aspect of the exchange I find particularly interesting is Purnell's call to broaden egalitarian thinking from income to 'capabilities', and Cruddas's reaction to this.
Here is what Purnell says:
'The left needs to be clear about the kind of equality it wants to pursue. I think we need to widen out from a narrow focus on income, to aiming for equality of capability - giving everyone the power to pursue their goals.'
And here is what Cruddas says in reply:
'...Purnell's idea of equality of capability is very interesting - if, and only if, it is more than just a reworking of equality of opportunity, another way of ignoring questions of distributional justice. Purnell says "we need to widen out from a narrow focus on income", which is true - but what follows only highlights a glaring omission. Why no mention of wealth?'
Cruddas is spot on.
Purnell takes the idea of 'capabilities' from the work of economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen. Sen developed the idea in the context of a debate within academic political philosophy called the 'Equality of what?' debate. This debate concerned (or concerns - it continues) just what egalitarians should be fundamentally concerned to equalize.
Sen argued against two other prevailing answers to the question 'Equality of what?' On the one hand, he rejected what he termed welfarism, the view that all that matters in a fundamental way is the pleasure or preference satisfaction someone enjoys. On the other, he rejected resourcism: the view that all that matters in a fundamental way is the resources someone has.
According to Sen, resourcism focuses on what people have ignoring what they are able to do and be with what they have. Two people with the same resources (for short, income) may nevertheless have very unequal capacity to do or be things because differences in their personal characteristics mean that they can get different things out of a given amount of income.
Welfarism does focus on what people can do with resources. But it only focuses on one aspect of what they can do: the welfare level they can attain. Rather than focusing on resources or welfare, we should instead focus on 'capabilities': that is, on a plurality of potential 'doings' and 'beings' that people are able to achieve with the resources they have.
It is true to say, then, as Purnell does, that the capabilities approach is meant to correct for a 'narrowness' in conceptualizing what matters simply as income. And, moreover, Sen's point in this respect is a compelling one.
Nevertheless, there is a danger of misunderstanding here. The danger consists in thinking something like this: 'Because it is capabilities that matter in a fundamental way for egalitarians, and not income, the left need not be too concerned with achieving greater equality in the distribution of income.'
Purnell doesn't say this - but what he does say could be construed as implying something like it. However, such a conclusion doesn't follow from Sen's analysis. Although there is more to capability than income, income - and wealth - remain crucially important in determining the capabilities that people have. The range of 'doings' and 'beings' available to an individual in a market society is shaped in a very basic way by the income (and wealth) they hold.
So a focus on capabilities is right. But it gives no good reason to deemphasize the left's traditional objective of achieving greater equality in the space of income - and, as Cruddas rightly adds, wealth.