Wednesday 1 July 2009

The public and inequality: some responses

Just off to see John Denham speak at a seminar to discuss the new Fabian research on public attitudes to inequality, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week.

The Guardian reports Denham's own view of how the research shows why public arguments for egalitarianism need to shift to reflect the robust public sense of fairness. He will be leading a discussion with academics, experts and campaigners on what the research means.

There has been some interesting media discussion of the research.

The Guardian editorial means and ends' felt the research explains some enduring paradoxes in public opinion - wanting less inequality without more redistribution - and was particularly interested in how the research captured the impact of the financial crisis: "The recent past, however, suddenly seems a different country ... as soon as the storm clouds broke over the City, public rationalisation of why the rich get paid what they do gave way to public rage".

Jenni Russell in the Sunday Times was among those who thought the research was much more fascinating than any of the Michael Jackson obituaries because "it showed that almost all activists’ and politicians’ assumptions – including mine – about how people feel about inequality are wrong". The egalitarian vision is best pursued as one of quality of life for all, she suggests'.

I wrote a commentary on Comment is Free about some of the main themes, which brought out a lengthy readers' discussion capturing the core arguments made by the different 'clusters' identified in the research and, perhaps, the way they tend to talk past each other, because they proceed from rather different worldviews and assumptions about what the problem of 'fairness' and 'unfairness' is.

There have been several highly engaged and often fruitful discussions on Liberal Conspiracy about aspects of the research, with several pieces being posted by those who have also blogged on their own sites about it.

Don Paskino thinks it shows why universal benefits should be protected from means-testing in a spending squeeze, which generated several responses about how to link the interests of the 'bottom' with the 'middle'. (Don's own blog is here)

David Osler (who blogs at Dave's Part wrote that the research shows that core left-wing intuitions are not widely shared, though there is instrumental support for progressive taxation "crudely ... the price society pays to keep burglary and mugging down to acceptable levels".further discussion on LC. Could egalitarians persuade the public, or should they adapt arguments to fit public norms?

A further LC piece by Dan of The Samovar suggested that prioritising fairness over equality would prove an effective egalitarian strategy.

And the radical US journal Cyrano's Journal Online addressed the research in an inequality special issue. (Scroll to the third item). Noting that "sometimes researchers just get lucky" by having the right study in place at the right time:

Last July, Bamfield and Horton began their field research. Three months later, in mid-September, the global economy collapsed. Bamfield and Horton suddenly had a “before” and an “after,” a totally serendipitous opportunity to study whether the worst economic calamity of modern times has altered public attitudes toward inequality — and those who benefit from it.
The two have seized, to the fullest, that opportunity. And what they’ve found should excite those of us who worry about inequality on both sides of the Atlantic.