Thursday 28 January 2010

On equality of outcome

"Old Labour believed in equality of outcome", wrote Phillip Blond and John Milbank in The Guardian this morning.

That is news to me. Who? When? Where?

Certainly not Tawney or Crosland. Nor the Webbs. Not Attlee nor Morrison, neither Bevan nor Gaitskell. Not Wilson or Callaghan.

As Stuart wrote in his good critique of the article earlier today on Next Left:

Hardly anyone on the left - now or in the past - argues for equality of outcomes.

Perhaps we can pin "hardly anyone" down even further.

Bernard Crick has a (very) little list in his 1991 essay "Shaw as political thinker", available in his collection 'Crossing Borders':

When Shaw put the case for a literal equality of income and outcome, not of opportunity (a view put forward by no other known socialist thinker since Gracchus Babeuf), he forced his audiences into mental movement, challenging them to come back with criteria for differentation or to define what they mean by concepts such as 'a radically more equal society' or 'an egalitarian society' ... He rattles on with a spectacular defence of this impossible position ... But he is plainly fishing for stock responses in discussion.

A rejection of equality of outcome as a goal doesn't mean that outcomes don't matter to a substantive equality of opportunity. The focus on wealth and assets is important because today's unequal outcomes shape tomorrow's unequal opportunities, and the inter-generational transmission of advantage and disadvantage should be of particular concern.

Shaw goes on to argue that the aim should be a classless society, and that the best test of that was "to keep the entire community intermarriageable": that only in a fully egalitarian society would social objections never be put in the way of a couple who wanted to marry.

As Crick writes:

Intermarriageability is in fact a very shrewdly chosen indicator of class prejudice or classlessness, revealing a masterly 'sociological imagination'

Like Stuart, I found the advocacy of the Blond/Milbank piece rather opaque. (Phillip has tweeted that Stuart's a "nice critique", so perhaps he might respond by clarifying what he and Millbank are calling for). But it seems to be against that type of 'classless society.

And Blond mostly continues to discuss the left through a series of straw man caricatures of the left, a tendency I first noted a year ago. Thinkers on the left have made the effort to engage seriously with Blond's Red Toryism but I don't think that has yet been reciprocated through Blond discussing a left which anybody who is part of it would recognise.


UPDATE: A fantastic piece of further detail from Stuart White in the comments.

The key text of what Labour thought, Ben Jackson's 'Equality and the British Left' tells us that Shaw actually put the equality of incomes idea forward first to a Fabian Society meeting in 1910, arguing that it would help to clear Fabians of "that suspicion of bureaucratic oligarchy which attaches to us at present and attaches with good reason".

Ben adds: "Unhappily for Shaw, neither the Fabians nor the Labour Party establishment were interested in his suggestion, and strict egalitarianism did not prove to be widely persuasive."

Shaw himself later 'recanted', Ben points out, in light of what he perceived to be the very effective use of incentive payments in the Soviet Union....


Letters From A Tory said...

One wonders how long Blond can live off the back of his 'Red Toryism' before someone asks where his tangible solutions to tangible problems are.

_______ said...

Leftist thinkers haven't explicitly used the term equality of outcome, but aiming to reduce relative poverty, absolute poverty and the welfare state (inspired by luck egalitarianism) effectively increase equality of outcome to a large extent (which is necessary for equality of opportunity).

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, I think that's right. The argument that "equality of outcome" is being sought (as the desired goal) is a straw man, posited to be simply dismissed.

At the same time, genuine equality of opportunity (or of capability, or of life chances, or luck egalitarianism) is possible only in a society where the range of unequal outcomes are not so great that there is a persistent inter-generational hierarchical stratification of opportunity (for example, by wealth or class). Less equal outcomes are needed.

This was one of the themes of our life chances research, which suggested that the outcome or opportunity discussion risked being a stale one which missed those connections.

But that can be combined with a point against "equality of outcome" as an end in itself: seeking to oppose and correct all unequal outcomes, however they arose, would defeat the point too, particularly if this is to be an account about the fair distribution of autonomy as freedom. Autonomy is empty if having it can't make any difference to anything at all.

So difference in outcomes resulting from a fair start and free choices tend to be perceived as legitimate ('fair inequality'), but that must also be combined with a particular concern with how outcomes also structure, entrench or open up future opportunities, if the intention is to have fair opportunities over time. (Stuart notes the dissonance in this account with luck egalitarianism since (inherited) talent is mostly treated as reflecting merit, and not seen as arbitrary, which is a further discussion).

That is why egalitarians from all of these perspectives will share Blond and Millbank's concern that asset and wealth inequalities need more attention: no version of equal opportunity which ignores that would meet a meritocratic test either.

The Fabian Life Chances report argued that also suggested scepticism about how far meritocracy (alone) should be a guiding principle: "If merit were a basis of desert, but in its most easily demonstrable forms is also strongly causally related to family background, then it would appear that individuals deserve their advantages based on their parents' characteristics. This offends against common sense".

Stuart White said...

Thanks for this, Sunder.

The key text on 'what Labour thought' is my colleague, Ben Jackson's, book, Equality and the British Left.

I have just consulted Ben's book, and it tells us that Shaw actually put the equality of incomes idea forward first to a Fabian Society meeting in 1910, arguing that it would help to clear Fabians of 'that suspicion of bureaucratic oligarchy which attaches to us at present and attaches with good reason'.

Ben adds: 'Unhappily for Shaw, neither the Fabians nor the Labour Party establishment were interested in his suggestion, and strict egalitarianism did not prove to be widely persuasive.'

Shaw himself later 'recanted', Ben points out, in light of what he perceived to be the very effective use of incentive payments in the Soviet Union....

Sunder Katwala said...


That's brilliant: thanks very much.

Sensible old Fabians!

So, a whole century of not being for strict equality of outcome ... though maybe eradicating suspicion of 'bureaucratic oligarchy' is an ongoing task!

One almost feels sorry for Gracchus Babeuf when not even the Soviet Union will back him.

I discussed Shaw on equality in a piece to mark his 150th birthday, including Crick's perhaps slightly generous view that Shaw used the argument as a way of making the 'no unjustified inequalities' argument.

Harold Laski complained about Shaw, "For a man to tell you that the desirable thing is equality of income without telling you how to get it is simply irritating", though Shaw seems to have mostly advocated a rather gradualist and mostly levelling up approach (Blairite means?!) to how strict equality of income would be brought about.

Arnie Ryerson said...

Philip Blond and John Millbank should take the time to read Ben Jackson's excellent book 'Equality and the British Left.' They will find that absolutist egalitarians like Shaw were always in an extreme minority - which in any case sought (quite succesfully) to provoke discussion on the principle of equality - and that the Left's mainstream concentrated it's attention on the problem of the extent to which inequality could be justified in line with egalitarian principles.

In other words, 'jusftifiable inequality' has always been a mainstay of serious Labour thought, and Blond and Millbank's suggestion otherwise is either the result of ignorance or a deliberate simplification of the issues in an ungallant attempt to avoid serious debate on this issue - a debate which might expose the difficult tensions within their 'Red Tory' posturing.

_______ said...

Sunder, I agree that equality of outcome is only necessary to the extent that it increases equality of opportunity (labour market autonomy). But how much equality of outcome is necessary to reach the point where even greater equality of outcome would not increase social mobility? Are the Scandinavian countries equal enough to provide maximum social mobility? Is ensuring no individual earns below 60% of the median income good enough? And is the gap between the middle and the top relevant n effecting social mobility levels?

Patricia said...

Like Sunder, I too very much appreciated Stuart White’s comments on Blond and Milbank’s article. Here are some thoughts of my own which they prompted.

Blond and Milbank rightly bring attention to 'injustice' underlying certain 'ways of equalising'. Indeed, the terror of a radically equal society is convincingly captured in Kurt Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' - a dystopian story where social equality has been achieved by crippling the strong by making them carry weights, debilitating the intelligent by subjecting them to constant distracting noise and stripping the beautiful of their charm by forcing them to wear a mask. The story (with a tragic climax which could rival that in Hamlet) is a sombre reminder that, once again as Blond and Milbank point out, we should try hard to find ways to conceptualise justifiable inequality.

For Blond and Milbank the justifiable inequality, or what they call 'hierarchy of excellence' is premised on the concept of virtue - '...a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of the wider society.' As Stuart White points out, this notion is pretty opaque, or perhaps deliberately obscurantist because, on a closer examination, it is not that different from the notion of meritocratic equality of opportunity. Indeed, keeping 'virtue' separate from 'merit' can come at a rather high price of opening up to a standard set of objections to Aristotelianism.

It is astonishing how the language of the Nicomachean Ethics lends itself to paraphrase the key thought of Blond's and Milbank's article. It would go like this: for Aristotle – and Blond and Milbank - political action is concerned with noble actions; its objective is to establish a state which would enable its citizens to attain happiness (which is synonymous for Aristotle with providing education necessary to form virtuous character); the driving force of politics is practical wisdom defined as 'a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about what is good or bad for human beings'. Crucially, practical wisdom for Aristotle, and virtue for Blond and Milbank, is a predisposition of character enabling one to determine the highest good and the means to attain it. Thus - and here is the crux of the argument - what constitutes the good (human flourishing or happiness) is to be defined circularly, as whatever is recognized as such by a virtuous person.
I think this is the point White makes when he suggests that, in order to be consistent in their argument, Blond and Milbank may need to convene a National Virtue Panel. Perhaps it could suggested that this is not such an absurd idea if one accepted that some people's judgement is in fact superior, say, in a way suggested by Hume in 'On the Standard of Taste' - still, monopolizing knowledge of the highest good is question begging. One reason - I want to focus on here - why it is problematic can be explained by going back once again to the Aristotelian framework. be continued...

Patricia said...

Continuing on…

In short, the problem with the Aristotelian view is that it offers no straightforward answer to the question of 'what should I do?', independently of 'what kind of person should I imitate?'. That is to say, one can only direct one's actions by imitating virtuous agents, who in turn determine the content of virtuous actions. But Aristotle argues himself that the formation of a virtuous character can be a life-long process, as it requires proper moral education, experience and training. In a nutshell, the problem with this method is that, in the words of Nussbaum, 'since the beliefs in question are for the most part socially taught, the procedure also assumes the relative health of the surrounding society'. But isn't it that it is precisely the 'health of the surrounding society' that is brought to question by the proponents (red and blue) of the Broken Britain claim?

Here is the question: are those who Blond and Milbank propose should stay on top of the hierarchy exempt from the societal pressures and allowed to cultivate their good judgment in some Arcadian ideological vacuum where their sound judgment does not suffer from the harmful contextual influence? Clearly not. In order to dodge this accusation of being 'locked up in bad immanence', Blond might want to suggest that there is some other - perhaps transcendental - validating criterion for his hierarchy of virtue. It would be good to know what the source of objective worth on Blond and Milbank's picture is - unless this problem is addressed, the 'hierarchy of excellence' they talk about is likely to share the fate described in yet another dystopian story treating the issue of social justice - Young's 'Rise of Meritocracy' where the masses overthrow the meritocratically constituted ruling class on the ground that it monopolizes access to merit and privilege.

Perhaps engaging in this debate - in terms the left could understand - could be for Blond the first step towards engaging seriously with traditional left ideas. This debate, as Sunder Katwala points out, is now long overdue.

John Milbank said...

Obviously, by 'equality of outcome' Blond and I mean qualified equality of outcome. But the telegraphing of this by the shorter phrase is entirely traditional. No-one of course thinks that many socialists have ever advocated literal equality. However, the switch from outcome to opportunity only is a real shift and differentaites Crosland from tawney already. We are questioning this retreat from radicalism. At the same time, we are arguing that if pure equality is rejected then that means that some equality is accepted. But if accepted then it should be jusstifiable. It's this point that we suggest tends to be ignored. How can any inequalty be justified unless all privilege of status or wealth is linked to desert and virtuous excellence? To object to noblesse oblige etc here is to miss the point that if one denies this argument what one gets instead is NOT the classless society but the rule of even worse bastards.............who owe their positions to success in a purely egotisitic competition. If rewards were more limited by the legitimate needs of talent and virtue, including their capacity for good influence, then actually differentials would have to be far less thtan today. Never mind labels -- 'red tory' etc -- in actual fact what we said accords still with 'to each according to his needs'.

Stuart White said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Milbank said...

apologies: last post should have read 'some inequality is accepted' not 'some equality' in the middle of the blog.

Stuart White said...

(I deleted the comment above because I wondered when Blond-Milbank might reply...and then it turned out that John Milbank had...)

John: thanks for replying. I don't think your reply really takes on board the force of the various criticisms made in Sunder's post and my own.

First, you say that by 'equality of outcome' you 'obviously' meant 'qualified equality of outcome.' Well, I don't think that was obvious. Moreover, if you do mean 'qualified equality of outcome' then the opening contrast you make between the 'Old Labour' view you oppose and your own view disappears - because you, too, are commited to 'qualified equality of outcome' - you think there should be equality of outcome qualified by the legitimate claims of 'virtue'. So the interpretation that Sunder and I gave was the natural one as it is necessary to make sense of the fact that you contrast your own position with that of 'Old Labour'/'equality of outcome'.

Second, your reply makes assertions about the history of thinking about equality on the British left which are not accurate. It is not the case that between Tawney and Crosland we see a shift from 'outcome to opportunity'. Tawney never dnied that equality of opportunity was part of justice; and Crosland did not say that it was all there was to justice. In fact, both are close to the Rawlsian position that inequalities in outcome (income) are OK if they serve the good of all, including the worst-off.

Third, and (for now) finally, you do not make any response - here at least - to the point in my post that your own conception of 'virtue' is actually going to be quite parasitic on market-based notions of 'merit' - unless, of course, you do want to convene a National Virtue Panel in which supposed virtue experts give an objective determination of the value of various kinds of activity. Do you want that?

Stuart White said...

John: a further point in reply. You say that if strict equality of outcome is ignored then we must accept that some inequality is justified - and that 'this point tends to be ignored.'

In fact, the vast bulk of theorizing on the subject of justice and equality has been on precisely this question. There is a huge contemporary literature out there exploring the respective claims of incentives, desert, 'ambition-sensitivity', and so on, as various grounds for justifiable inequality. And many of the ideas in this recent literature are also there in the earlier debates which Hobhouse, Tawney, Cole, Laski, Crosland et al all participated in. So your implication that this is ground no one has seen fit to plough is just false. Take a look at the previous posts on equality at Next Left and you'll see how much stuff there already is out there on this.

Stuart White said...

Ooops - that should be 'if strict equality of outcome is rejected' not 'strict equality of outcome is ignored' in the second sentence of the previous post.

_______ said...

The left only tolerates economic inequalities to the extent which they are necessary to create economic growth, tax revenues and full employment. Economic equality is ultimately about removing arbitrary power in society.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks to Annie Ryerson and Patricia for interesting contributions.

John - I appreciate your taking the time to reply. My reading was similar to Stuart's: at least the piece must have been arguing that "Old Labour" had a predominantly "outcome" based idea of equality, before going on to argue that there is no account of what outcomes matter in "opportunity" accounts. I would question both of these claims. The Tawney/Crosland claim also suggests that the "Old Labour"/new Labour ideas division might refer to the period before 1956, rather than before the mid-1990s, which I think may show how those terms are of limited use in discussing political ideas, as opposed to political history, particularly the ideas of the social democratic old right.

The link between outcomes and starting points has been a consistent theme, which is why all social democratic 'equality of opportunity' (or life chances, or capability) accounts have had a lot to say about wealth.

Sunder Katwala said...

I am aware of one 'equality of opportunity' account which does resemble that described by Blond and Milbank (and which they believe the centre-left advocates). That is the explicitly anti-egalitarian account of Margaret Thatcher, most clearly argued in her "Let Our Children Grow Tall" speech which voices support for an account of 'equality of opportunity' which is to be very sharply differentiated from the 'mirage' of equality, which enabled Thatcher to argue that redistribution of either income or wealth would reduce equality of opportunity, not enhance it, and so to pursue policies to sharply increase income inequality, and asset inequalities too.

She says: "Now, what are the lessons then that we've learned from the last thirty years? First, that the pursuit of equality itself is a mirage. What's more desireable and more practicable than the pursuit of equality is the pursuit of equality of opportunity. And opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal and the freedom to be different. One of the reasons that we value individuals is not because they're all the same, but because they're all different. I believe you have a saying in the Middle West: "Don't cut down the tall poppies. Let them rather grow tall." I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so.

What I don't think can be argued is that social democratic advocates of equality of opportunity have shared her view. Thatcher does, in 1976, report that inequalities of wealth "have been the chief target of the egalitarian critics".

Blond and Milbank critique the outcomes of the last 30 years as demonstrating the inherent weakness of any equality of opportunity account: yet the policy for half of this period was explicitly anti-egalitarian, and for the second half was a quite different policy of (modest) egalitarianism.

To conflate these is very questionable, though it is politically very useful to the claim made by both Thatcher in 1976 and Cameron now that redistribution has reached the end of the road. As Blond and Milbank argue with regard to wealth inequalities at least, that is entirely the wrong conclusion.

Francois Tremblay said...

What in the hell are you talking about? There are plenty of people who seek equality of outcome. Most serious Leftist thinkers have argued for either outright equality of outcome or a severe reduction in inequality of outcomes. I don't know who YOU'VE been reading.

Only people who are lost in theory and refuse to look at reality don't advocate some reduction in inequality of outcomes.