Monday, 6 July 2009

What kind of egalitarian are you?

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'.


John said...

Equality of outcome and Equality of opportunity are linked.

The Scandinavian Social Democracies are amongst the most egalitarian democracies on earth, and have the highest social mobility on earth (which is a by product of equality of opportunity).

Healthcare, childcare, a clean environment and enough money to not get stressed are necessary to create equality of opportunity for children and adults.

Equality of opportunity should be lifelong as well, not just up to the age of 18 or so.

So creating a more egalitarian society is necessary to create greater equality of opportunity.

Also, individual life choices are inherently affect by other people, and are not 'atomised'. The trickery, communication, misinformation and other external factors that occur in the market, workplace, civil society and government all affect the life choices and 'free will' of an individual.

I believe in creating economic egalitarianism as well as making society less materialistic, so individuals will never be put in a position where their employer dominates them even if they are getting paid a high salary, because they don't mind having a lower salary. Domination is only bad when you sacrifice your welfare, opportunity and citizenship if you quit your job.

Stuart White said...

John: I agree entirely that equality of opportunity and wider economic egalitarianism are strongly linked. To the extent that meritocrats want to defend equality of opportunity and allow major iequalities in reward (as supposedly 'deserved' by those with greater skill), the ideal risks being incoherent.

I also agree that the idea of 'choice', which is so important to the luck egalitarian, is a trickir concept that my above presentation might suggest. Choices reflect preferences which reflect circumstances which are not themselves (necessarily) a result of choice. So any luck egalitarian approach is going to have to take a pretty careful approach to disentangling the inputs of 'choice' and 'brute luck' in determining outcomes. The economist and philosopher, John Roemer, has done some interesting work on this problem. Bt another worry I have about the political appropriation of luck egalitarianism is that this subtlety can easily be lost.

Stuart White said...

Apologies for the various typos in the previous comment....

Rachael Jolley said...

Stuart - this is such an interesting post - I'm going to send it out to my friends. Thanks for all your thoughts.

donpaskini said...

Hi Stuart,

Good stuff, but if you're going to include 2 different theories of meritocracy amongst the theories of equality, would be good to have a reference to Michael Young?

Meritocracy, after all, is rather unusual amongst political theories in that its author was the one who explained why it is a really, really bad idea.

badconscience said...

Don Paskini:

Ages ago I discussed the Michael Young 'aspect' of meritocracy, whilst mounting a criticism of Tony Blair, whom I think Stuart would class as a "weak meritocrat" in the above

Paul said...

As for what kind of egalitarian I am...well, seen as you ask (albeit I suspect rhetorically):

A Rawlsian insofar as I think the arbitrariness of talents should fairly be compensated for, with a heavy sprinkling of luck egalitarianism (after Adam Swift correctly and eventually hammered it into me that there is something *right* about people bearing the costs of their choices in many cases, and that Anderson's criticism are way off the mark in many respects), yet balancing this out with reminders from Wolff and Scheffler that a) some free riders should be tolerated within a luck egalitarian framework because of the importance of respecting persons in the egalitarian ethos (thus not going for full-blown luck egalitarianism, even in the practical realm not just the conceptual one), and b) taking note from Scheffler that the "choices" luck egalitarians point to raise some stonking great metaphysical questions, which we cannot glibly gloss-over a-la-Cohen (in "Currency") when making ethical pronouncements upon how people's lives should go.

But I think that can all be mixed in with a nice load of empirically-based consequentialist thoughts, in the style of Pickett and Wilkinson - especially if we're out on the doorsteps and not just in the classroom.

John said...

I'd say I'm a relational egalitarian, but I think that you can have a degree of economic inequality, and still achieve relational egalitarian ends.

Charlie Marks said...

I find it hard to believe Denham was deliberately misunderstood. Anyhow...

How are people and low and middle incomes to advance themselves if effective trade unionism is illegal? The Scandinavian social democracies do not have the massive regulation of trade unions that we have in the UK.

Whilst New Labour remains committed to keeping these restrictions on working people - in the name of "flexibility" - they can't be taken seriously on fairness.

John said...

Good point Charlie. Scandinavia has much lower mean average wages than the UK, but Norway has much much higher mean average wages than the UK, and Finland and Denmark also have significantly higher wages than the UK.

Scandinavians have a large knowledge economy and manufacturing base. Britain still has an overwhelmingly large service sector with tons of low paying jobs.

I think ending massive trade union regulations, as well as doing more to support job growth in the knowledge economy and high tech manufactering/engineering sectors would go a long way to reducing child poverty in this country, and increase wages of low to middle income adults.

I would call it an economic necessity to give power back to trade unions, because the current form of capitalism led to record income inequalities partly due to suppressed labour, coupled with bank deregulation led to massive consumer lending to people who couldn't pay back their mortgages or loans, leading to the credit crunch, banking collapse and recession.

The new sustainable capitalism is going to have to unsuppress labour, and regulate banks more.

John said...

EDIT: Sweden has lower wages than the UK, but Sacandinavia on average has higher wages.