Thursday 28 January 2010

Red Tory equality: time for the National Virtue Panel?

Next Left has been much exercised of late with the question of what kind of equality the left should pursue. So we should perhaps be grateful that, responding to the National Equality Panel (NEP) report, Phillip Blond has entered the discussion with a piece on equality, co-authored with John Milbank, in today's Guardian.

Do Blond-Milbank cast any new and interesting light on this contentious subject?

They are certainly trying to stake out some new terrain. Their argument is that the left offers either 'equality of outcomes' ('Old Labour') or 'equality of opportunity' and meritocracy (New Labour) as its goal; but neither is adequate; a better alternative will combine the 'traditional left's emphasis on addressing economic inequity with the old right's concern with justified inequality.'

However, I find this allegedly new view of equality extremely opaque. And I am not in fact sure that it will turn out to be all that different to the equality of opportunity-meritocratic perspective that Blond-Milbank claim they reject.

Before we get to the Blond-Milbank proposal itself, however, we should first note that the article engages with a caricature of the left position rather than with the real left view (or range of views).

Hardly anyone on the left - now or in the past - argues for equality of outcomes. This does not mean that the left generally endorses meritocracy and its specific understanding of 'equality of opportunity'. For there are lots of other possibilities which are more egalitarian than meritocracy and less indiscriminate than equality of outcomes. Much of the thinking about justice and inequality in the ethical socialist and social liberal traditions occupies this terrain. So too does contemporary liberal/egalitarian political philosophy. Blond-Milbank just ignore all of this.

Moreover, at times their argument relies on obvious misunderstandings of the rival view.

So, for example, they quite rightly point to the huge inequality of wealth revealed in the NEP report, and then add: 'One can only conclude that equality of opportunity is an inadequate and incoherent approach.'

Well, actually, no, one can quite readily conclude something else: namely, that with inequality of wealth like this, our society is obviously nowhere near 'equality of opportunity' and that we need radical new policies to change the distribution of wealth in order to achieve it. The inequality of wealth is not evidence that 'equality of opportunity' has been tried as an 'approach' and has failed. It is evidence that we haven't really tried it.

Part of the problem here is the way Blond-Milbank use the term 'equality of opportunity' simultaneously to refer to an ethical principle or ideal and to refer to a policy approach - indeed, they seem to want to equate it with current government policy. But there is obviously a difference. Even if present government policy is informed by the principle of equality of opportunity, its policies are not necessarily sufficient to realise this principle. Patently, they are not. So one cannot directly infer the inadequacy of the principle or ideal from the inadequacy of existing policy.

Let's turn now to the Blond-Milbank alternative to meritocratic equality of opportunity.

I can certainly understand what they mean when they say: 'We need a new political economy that will distribute resources more evenly and give working people greater assets and independence...' This is the 'traditional left' part of the Blond-Milbank view.

But they want to complement this 'traditional left' viewpoint with an 'old Tory' notion which they formulate as follows: '...privilege is not just reward for success, but also a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue.'

By 'virtue' they mean: '...a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of the wider society.'

I've read these words over quite a few times and am still unsure what they mean. What is the nature of the 'power' that the virtuous allegedly have a just claim to? Over what - or whom - is this power to be exercised, and with respect to what ends, subject to what conditions? And what level or kinds of 'resources' are 'appropriate' for the wielding of this power? Why are they 'appropriate'?

Can I have an example please?

Insofar as I get what they are saying, I am not at all sure that this proposal actually does differ very much from the notion of meritocratic equality of opportunity that Blond-Milbank reject.

On the one hand, they accept the need for large-scale equalization of assets to spread opportunity - which, of course, any genuine meritocrat will also endorse.

On the other hand, I suspect that the 'virtue' which Blond-Milbank think should be the grounds of higher income or wealth does not differ very much from the 'merit' which the equal opportunity meritocrat thinks worthy of reward.

The meritocratic idea is that high earners deserve their higher earnings because they are making a greater contribution to society through the responsible, productive application of their greater skills. Blond-Milbank would argue that their view is different because it does not take the 'market' as the sole criterion of the value of a productive activity. But the distance between the two views is probably not that great. Meritocrats, for their part, do not say that any and all high rewards are deserved: they have to be earned under suitably competitive conditions (rather than reflecting monopolistic rents) and they have to be earned from the production and sale of goods which it is legitimate to produce and sell (so meritocrats are not necessarily committed to defending the high earnings of a crack cocaine dealer).

At the same time, unless Blond-Milbank are going to convene a National Virtue Panel to determine the supposedly objective worth of each and every productive activity, they will have to rely to some considerable extent on market-based valuations to determine who has 'talent' and who is exercising a 'role for the benefit of wider society' - i.e., to determine who has 'virtue'.

Or perhaps they do wish to convene a National Virtue Panel?

Are they volunteering for the job?


Robert said...

Left right or middle of the road, the report which says labour has made this country Conservative is right, even on here all the talk is about the working class, workers working. My nephew has come back from a war zone crippled he is not going to work again, I was working for 29 years and then through no fault of my own fell 100ft landed on my feet. All i remeber was people holding me up and saying what shall we do. I spent eighteen months in hospital, the company was found guilty of not keeping records of machinery they stated they accepted liability, and it took me fifteen years to get compensation.

So I'm now classed as being Paraplegic yet I'm not part of new labour , Old labour or any labour because I'm not working.

Funny old world how we talk about the working class so long as they are working, a lot of the lads coming back from the war zones will have the same treatment, your not part of society.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the post. I hope Phillip might come back and explain what he was advocating in the second half, which seemed raher opaque.

I was also irked, reading this in the paper on the train this morning, by the sweeping caricatures in the opening half which you pick up on.

_______ said...

The whole idea about equality is that every citizen is of equal worth. Hence, virtues are incompatible with citizenship.