Friday 15 January 2010

What kind of equality should we fight for?

* Stuart White speaks on "Equality of What?" at Saturday's Fabian new year conference alongside John Denham, Jenni Russell and Neal Lawson, with Anne Campbell chairing. Here he examines recent debates in political theory and examines how public political debates about equality are shifting too.


One of the panels at the Fabians' upcoming 'Causes to Fight For' conference will focus on that old perennial of the left: equality. Everyone on the left agrees that equality is desirable. In all sorts of respects, we want more of it. But we don't necessarily agree on how much more equality we should aim for, or what it is we should be trying, fundamentally, to equalize.

In this post, which serves as a complement to my earlier post, What kind of egalitarian are you?, I shall try to clarify some of the key moves in the academic philosophizing around this topic in recent years and relate them to the debates which have begun to reemerge on the left.

Contemporary academic political philosophy is, in many respects, an extended reaction (negative and positive) to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971. This makes Rawls's relative absence from much commentary and discussion on the left/centre-left today all the more puzzling - a point I shall return to below.

Meritocracy is not enough

One of the core ideas of Rawls's book - not original to him, but forcefully articulated by him - is that what we call 'equality of opportunity' or 'meritocracy' is not adequate as a statement of the kind of equality that justice requires.

Imagine, first, a society in which there are no formal barriers to people competing for jobs and offices. Imagine, in addition, that there are laws which prohibit discrimination in competition for jobs and offices on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. While such a society would certainly have achieved one important requirement of justice, it could not be said to have achieved genuine equality of opportunity merely because it exhibits a career open to talents in a non-discriminatory environment. This is, of course, because differences in social background will have all sorts of disequalizing impacts on individuals' prospects for developing their talents and competing for jobs and offices. Genuine equality of opportunity requires that we also tackle these other various disequalizing factors - unequal access to quality education, unequal financial inheritances and inequalities in cognitive and social skills rooted in family differences.

We probably can't eradicate all of these disequalizing factors - or, if we could, doing so might come at too great cost in terms of other values. But assume that we can get a long way down this road, and that we do. Would the resulting society be just?

Not according to Rawls. Even in this context some people would have worse prospects for things like income and wealth than others as a result of differences in their natural endowments. These inequalities, genetic in origin, will translate into unequal earnings power even under conditions of genuine 'equality of opportunity'. But insofar as the inequality in earnings power does reflect differences in natural endowments, then, Rawls argues, it is no less 'morally arbitrary', no less undeserved, than inequality in earnings capacity that results from, say, inequalities in class background.

In other words: inequalities in market rewards which reflect differences in natural ability are not inherently fair. The more talented - those who can get more for a given amount of effort in the marketplace - are not 'deserving' of these higher rewards or 'entitled' to them.

Thus, meritocracy, which is usually understood to allow such inequalities - indeed, to endorse them as fair provided there is (sufficient) equality of opportunity - is itself unjust. The kind of equality of opportunity it requires is part of what justice requires. But justice requires us to go beyond meritocracy and to equalize the income and wealth shares of citizens who have unequal capacity to earn in the market. Rawls would allow inequality in income and wealth shares only if the higher pay that some receive stimulates them to produce more for the benefit of the less talented too.

But we should also be 'ambition-sensitive'

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls not only suggests that inequalities in income and wealth shares due to unequal talent or ability are intrinsically undeserved. He suggests this is also true for those due to differences in effort.

On this point, however, subsequent egalitarians, such as Ronald Dworkin, sought (in effect) to modify Rawls's position. (Indeed, Rawls himself later retreated from it.) In Dworkin's influential formulation, a just distribution of resources should aspire to be at once 'endowment-insensitive' and 'ambition-sensitive'. If Smith earns more than Jones because she is gifted with more talent, then this is unfair. But if Smith earns more because she just chooses to work longer hours, or chooses to work in a higher paying job that is also an option for Jones, then the inequality is fair. And should be tolerated.

Thinkers such as G.A. Cohen developed Dworkin's intuition further into a position which has come to be known as luck egalitarianism. Roughly: an inequality is unjust, and so there is a justice-based reason to get rid of it, when it is due to 'brute luck' (factors over which the disadvantaged have no control); but an inequality is just, and so has a claim to be tolerated, if it results from different personal choices in a context where people have comparable options. Rawls is faulted by luck egalitarians for neglecting the second part of this principle - though he is also praised for helping us to grasp the first part of the principle (which meritocracy neglects).

Equality is about relations not distributions

Luck egalitarianism has a strong intuitive attraction. But it also suffers from some problems. One, which has been the focus of much luck egalitarian thinking, concerns just how to make the pivotal split between 'brute luck'- and 'choice'-based inequality. Choices, after all, reflect personalities. But personalities are shaped, in part, by brute luck. When someone gets an illness due to an unhealthy life-style do we attribute this disadvantage to 'choice' (in which case, on the luck egalitarian view, there is no justice-based reason to assist with the cost of the resulting health-care)? Or do we look at the social context of the choice and, perhaps, attribute the illness to the bad brute luck of being born into a social environment where, say, unhealthy dietary choices are the norm? How do we divide the illness, and responsibility for meeting the associated health-care costs, between the two categories?

A more far-reaching criticism, forcefully presented by Elizabeth Anderson, is that the whole luck egalitarian approach misses what a theory of equality really ought to be about. For Anderson, equality is not fundamentally about the distribution of stuff (income, wealth, welfare) but about the quality of relations between people. The demand for equality is properly understood, she claims, as (nothing but) the demand for a society in which people relate to one another in an appropriately egalitarian way. In essence - and here I offer my own crude summary of her position - all that matters fundamentally is status and power. People should not relate to one another on the basis of inequalities in status of the kind that underpin racial, gender and class social hierarchies. And people should be equal in the sphere of power - no one should be subject to the power of another in social life, and all should share in collective decision-making.

For Anderson, luck egalitarianism is objectionable because it allows some economic inequalities - those due to personal choices - which could undermine status and/or power equality. And because, so she claims, its offer to 'compensate' the unlucky is often demeaning to them, undermining their equality of status. The right distribution of income and wealth is, in essence, whatever works to secure equality of status and power.

How do these ideas feature in today's political debate?

These are some of the key ideas that have featured in recent academic philosophical work on equality. To what extent do we see echoes of them in the emerging debate over equality on the left?

The Anderson view, which deemphasises economic equality as an end in itself, and emphasises the fundamental importance of status and power, is one that is winning support. It has a lot in common, I think, with the 'power egalitarianism' which James Purnell has been developing over the past year and which also informs the 'liberal republicanism' of Richard Reeves and Philip Collins. Interestingly, Anderson, like Purnell, Reeves and Collins, explicitly links her prespective to Amartya Sen's 'capabilities approach'. The aim of securing status and power equality is easily linked to an agenda of securing a range of specific 'capabilities' for all.

The luck egalitarian view, particularly in its emphasis on the legitimacy of choice-based inequality, has something in common with the 'fairness' perspective which John Denham set out in a speech to the Fabians last year. In this respect, the view also resonates with public opinion. What is less clear is how far the Denham-type fairness perspective - and wider public opinion - also accepts the need to address brute luck disadvantage as the flip-side (indeed, precondition) of tolerating choice-based inequality.

This brings us back to Rawls. For perhaps the idea that has the least resonance in the contemporary political debate is the original Rawlsian idea that market inequalities reflecting differences in talent and ability are not intrinsically deserved.

Today, this idea is, I think - and Fabians like Sunder Katwala or Tim Horton will correct me if the attitudinal research shows something else - a deeply counter-cultural one. It is this, perhaps, which helps explain the curious inattention to Rawls in today's left/centre-left political discussion. Back in the 1980s, when David Owen was busy trying to annex Rawls as the philosophical inspiration for the SDP, Rawls was widely seen in Labour circles as far too right-wing because of his acceptance of inequality on incentives grounds. Today, he is widely ignored in Labour and (even more surprising) Liberal Democrat circles, and this may be because his egalitarianism is so at odds with the 'common sense' of post-Thatcher Britain.

Putting the point another way, his neglect is perhaps a symptom of just how far, post-Thatcher, right-wing assumptions about 'desert' and 'entitlement' have made inroads into the thinking of the centre-left - as a reflection of their inroads into the wider society. Much of the current talk in Labour circles about respecting 'aspiration' is, I suspect - it would take further analysis to show this properly - a kind of code for saying: 'Hands off the higher market rewards that the high earners deserve/are entitled to.'

However, I do not think that anyone has actually rebutted Rawls's scepticism about the essentially undeserved character of these rewards. This remains a point on which the Rawlsians and luck egalitarians are right. (Anderson is wrong to think that inequality of income and wealth matter only insofar as they affect status and power. They do matter because of their effects on status and power. But they also matter in their own right, and Rawls and the luck egalitarians are telling us something important about when inequality in income and wealth lacks justification.)

So the left should not concede the intrinsic justice of unequal market rewards. This does not mean, of course, that Labour should pledge itself to abolish all such rewards at the next election. It does mean that it should see the acceptance of such rewards as a concession to pragmatic politics - and not, as the 'aspirationists' would have it - as a matter of deep principle. And it means that when higher taxes for higher earners become politically feasible, we should grasp the opportunity, and not see it as a compromise of our principles.

1 comment:

. said...

I concede that more attention should, perhaps, be paid to Rawls. If only because his arguments have been so influential, shaping the debates that surround much of contemporary Anglo-American political theory. That said, the instruments that Rawls uses - heuristic or otherwise - are still firmly enmeshed in a liberal-democratic and/or classical liberal way of thinking. If we are to enliven a nascent and profoundly left-wing paradigm, would it not be best that we take our cue from thinkers to the left of Rawls?