Monday 20 July 2009

Capabilities or income?

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.


Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the post. I agree with the substantive point. There can often be a slipperiness from 'about more than income' (which is valid) to 'income not that important'. I feel that, when the current Conservative frontbench talk about inequality mattering (which is good) that they often make this type of argument, because the acceptance that inequality matters is combined with deep scepticism about both redistribution and the role of the state. And I think some New Labour voices might do this too.

I was at (some of) the launch tonight, and may post about it, and have contributed to the Open Left site (to be published over next few days).

It seems to me that Purnell recognises the point you make and he seemed to me to be clear about the need to meet Cruddas' "if and only if" challenge. Purnell was explicitly clear that more equal capabilities requires extensive redistribution of income, stressing the priority to be given to ending child poverty as a relative poverty/inequality measure. I didn't hear all of his contribution tonight, and it might be that pushing further for a clear acknowledgement of assets and wealth measures could be valuable here.

While Purnell is very much for active labour market policies, etc, he has, in the past criticised Tory arguments that tax credits simply disguise poverty by giving people more money, arguing that giving people more money is a hell of a way to disguise poverty.

Anonymous said...

Without focusing this thought properly, I'm suspecting that there's room to bring in a Gerry Cohen line on "freedom is money" here as well, right?

That is, as well as saying that income is important to achieving capabilities, we should remember that income (or equally, wealth, I suspect) conveys freedom, because having money allows a person to do stuff that without that money they simply cannot do.

Seems to me that freedom and capabilities are intimately entwined, not least because both come repeatedly back to questions of income/wealth.

And if we think that capabilities and freedom are important then, depending on some other moral thoughts in the area, we may well be quite concerned about inequality in capabilities and freedom between persons.

But if capability and freedom come back to income/wealth, then Purnell's queesiness when it comes to talking about issues of distributive justice is something of a problem, for he's falling short of addressing something which underpins thoughts about not just capabilities, but also freedom.

Charlie Marks said...

I can think of one capability that would help lessen income inequality - workers' rights to self-organise.

This costs nothing from the government end...

Robert said...

It's all talk because New labours in such a mess they are now talking up the left like hell, the fact is if your poor in the UK your in the shit. I was listening now to Milburn about getting more pupils into better jobs like doctors lawyers, he said a great idea is the Army Cadets, not the one the dirty little poor join , but the army officer cadet force, training officers for the future, once labour says anything about helping ordinary people they ruin it by looking toward the USA new labour has a serious problem with the UK being the UK it should be the USA.

Stuart White said...

Thanks for the comments.

On Sunder's point: yes, I noticed that on Newsnight, James Purnell was keen to emphasize income redistribution as integral to 'equality of capability'. It'll be interesting to see how this develops.

On badconscience's point: yes, I agree that if one wants to make the point that poverty limits freedom, one can do that using the basic notion of 'negative liberty' - freedom simply as the ability to act as one wishes (or might wish) without coercive interference by others. One doesn't need any notion of 'positive liberty' or 'capability' just to make this point. To lack money is to lack the means whereby, in a market society, one obtains legal permission to do things, e.g., travel on the train from London to Liverpool. It means, therefore, that one is subject to a larger range of legal prohibitions on what one can do and thus that one has less negative liberty.

sridhartest said...

Thanks for your accurate summary explanation of the capabilities approach. It is fascinating to see political philosophy suddenly become Newsnight banter. I am looking forward to seeing the depth of Purnell's interest in political philosophy and if it can be meaningfully applied to contemporary politics.

As my part of being engaged in public deliberation on this issue, I have to say that Purnell and others seem to focus too much on choice and not enough on substantive freedom or 'capability'. Creating real capabilities will entail significant social changes, including redistribution of income and wealth; creating capabilities/real freedom not just formal freedom has been and will be one of the clearest differences between the Left and the Right. Focusing on choice is distracting. As Sen, I think, has said somewhere, ensuring a person has a choice on which way to die is not really what social justice should be about. Equality of capabilities is conceived as being about equality of substantive freedom to pursue a flourishing life. SV

Bruce Smith said...

With respect Jon Cruddas and James Purnell really must stop mincing their words and being over-intellectual. It’s getting nowhere! If they want meaningful change they should declare unequivocally that the Labour Party’s primary sin has been the failure to devolve capital and control to the people as individuals. Its secondary sin was not to understand that using the state exclusively to relieve poverty and injustice was second best to the devolution of capital. Finally, they must use this message to garner the support of their fellow Labour MP’s and party to get the elitist Gordon Brown and his minions removed and replaced with a leadership that does sincerely believe in the devolution of capital and control. If the whole Sub-Prime Fiasco and MP’s Expenses Scandal is not telling them to do this then why should we have need of them. They will continue into the wilderness “intensely relaxed about poverty and injustice”.