There's been rather a lot of political theory around Next Left of late. Even I recognise that there is a danger of having too much of a good thing. But the emerging debate around John Denham's recent speech to the Fabian Society, developed in earlier posts by Sunder and Rachael, makes another theory post irresistible....
Equality. We all believe in it.
But what is it? As one might expect, there is a lot of argument within the academic political philosophy literature about this. Here are some of the main positions we can find in this literature:
(1) Weak meritocrat. 'Equality means equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity is satisfied when all can compete for jobs and offices on the basis of relevant skills with no discrimination.'
(2) Strong meritocrat. 'Equality means equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity requires an absence of discrimination in access to jobs and offices, but this is not sufficient. Other barriers to equality of opportunity are things like unequal educational opportunities; unequal financial inheritances; and unequal cultural capital. To achieve equality of opportunity we have to tackle these barriers as well as discrimination.'
(3) Rawlsian. 'Equality of opportunity is necessary for social justice, but not sufficient. For even under full equality of opportunity some people will have worse prospects than others simply because they are born with less ability to develop into marketable skills. Individuals who have different skills should share equally in the distribution of the social product unless an unequal division has incentive effects which make everyone, including the lowest-income group, better off.'
(See: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.)
(4) Luck egalitarian. 'Rawls is right that people should not be worse off in terms of things like income and wealth as a result of being born with less ability. The meritocrats neglect this. However, if people have similar ability and opportunity, and make different choices, justice requires that we respect the results of their choices. In short: disadvantage due to bad 'brute luck' is unjust and should be eliminated; disadvantage due to choice is just and should be tolerated.'
(See: G.A. Cohen, 'On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice', Ethics, 1989; Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue; Brian Barry, Why Social Justice Matters.)
(5) Relational egalitarian. 'Luck egalitarians are callous to allow people to face the consequences of their life-style choices. Egalitarianism isn't really about the distribution of things, but the quality of social relationships. In particular, two things matter: status and power. We need to foster a society in which there is equality of status and in which nobody has arbitrary power over another. We should distribute income and wealth to achieve this end.'
(See: Elizabeth Anderson, 'What's the Point of Equality?', Ethics, 1999.)
(6) Instrumental egalitarian. 'All the positions described above treat some kind of equality as desirable because intrinsically fair. But equality/less inequality is desirable also (or instead) because it promotes other things we care about, e.g., a higher level of happiness or well-being for every citizen, a stronger sense of community, etc.'
(See: Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level.)
As I think Ben Jackson's terrific book, Equality and the British Left, shows, past Labour thinking on equality has included versions of all of these positions (and more).
In terms of today's debates, John Denham can be seen as presenting a call for a shift towards a more 'luck egalitarian' perspective. While there are criticisms to be made of this position, Roy Hattersley-like edicts that the perspective is simply not social democratic or breaks with Labour tradition are not fair. It is, arguably, the mainstream position in contemporary egalitarian thought in academic political philosophy, and, as suggested, has a history in the thinking of the left.
I have argued in the past for luck egalitarianism as a component in Labour's thinking. Today I am a little more circumspect. Having watched the way New Labour has progressed, my worry is that when luck egalitarianism gets appropriated politically we may well end up with a very skewed application of the principle: making poor people bear greater costs in the name of personal responsibility and lifestyle choice while government does little to neutralise the huge 'brute luck' gains that high-earners and wealth-holders unjustly enjoy.
The results of the recent Fabian/Rowntree research into public attitudes suggests that if you want to make the political case for 'equality', the best bet might be to focus on instrumental arguments like Kate Pickett's and Richard Wilkinson's rather than by direct appeal to any particular account of what is intrinsically fair.
My concern here would only be that we do not confuse what is a resonant political argument with what is a sound philosophical position. Some degree of equality is indeed desirable for Pickett-Wilkinson-style instrumental reasons. But some kinds of equality are, as a matter of principle, also desirable because they are intrinsically fair. Even if most people don't presently buy this idea, that's no reason for an egalitarian to forget it.
While each of the positions captures something of genuine importance, the various viewpoints do not necessarily fully cohere. To some extent, they might well conflict. (Indeed, the relational position was rearticulated largely in response to the perceived problems of luck egalitarianism, and intended to be in opposition to it.) A tricky question for anyone trying to ride the Denham and Pickett-Wilkinson horses at the same time is whether the sort of equality the luck egalitarian aims for will necessarily generate the sort of wider social benefits that Pickett's and Wilkinson's research reveals.
The main point, I think, is that 'equality' is a demand that covers a range of reasonable ideals. There is not necessarily a single right way of integrating these ideals. Of course, some positions are more reasonable and plausible than others: I would argue that no position which remains merely meritocratic is morally defensible. But, within certain boundaries, reasonable social democrats can and do reasonably disagree about the weight to give to these different ideals of equality. We cannot and should not expect unanimity on the question of equality simply by invoking the magical words 'social democrat', 'Labour' or 'tradition'.