Wednesday, 17 February 2010

On virtue and equality: Milbank responds

A recent Guardian piece saw Phillip Blond and John Milbank challenge equality of opportunity in the name of a new 'Red Tory' synthesis, which would reject a value-free meritocracy by combining an "Old Labour" concern with the distribution of resources and assets with an "Old Tory" defence of privilege, as "a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue". That sparked some head-scratching and much discussion here on Next Left, with Stuart White asking who would decide about how virtue would be conceptualised and rewarded, and with Stuart White and John Milbank among those to join an 'equality of what?' thread discussing opportunity and outcome.

With ResPublica have now joined the blogging think-tanks in their new Disraeli Room blog, the think-tank has interviewed John Milbank about the responses sparked by the piece.

The ResPublica post includes Milbank's argument that Rawslian liberal egalitarianism must collapse somewhere between 'tyranny and impossibility'.

The comments on the (Guardian) article indicate some utilitarianism but also much Rawlsianism which gives greater priority to equality in terms of negative freedom of choice and autonomy. Clearly it is this which Blond and I most of all reject. We’re with Sandel etc and not Rawls.

What is the problem with the Rawlsian model as regards delivering equality? The following I think: Rawls is bound to be limited to equality of opportunity and this leads to an aporia. It’s true that he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc but only in the interests of a Lockean or Kantian equality of negative freedom. Why is this aporetic? Because logically it would require one to abolish in every generation for the children the acquired and legitimate meritocratic differentials established by their parents. When we remember that ‘generation’ is an artificial construct because new children are born every day, one can further extend this aporia into pure insanity. The Rawlsian agenda would require one simultaneously to allow and to destroy every properly emergent and rule-legitimated inequality!

But let’s assume that generations can be tidily separated. This still suggests that really children should be removed from their parents by the state – or that maybe all parents should read to their children the same amount of storybook every night etc - and such idiocies have indeed been suggested by contemporary liberals. So at this point one is somewhere between tyranny and impossibility.

It is a two part interview. The second part promises a Red Tory case for preferring cricket over football, which may perhaps provide a key to the virtue puzzle by taking non-relativism into a new and hotly contested sphere. We will link that second part here when it appears tomorrow.


A "how do we stop parents reading bedtime stories" egalitarianism is a crude caricature, implying the bulk of the egalitarian left is simply pursuing Pol Pot's agenda by gradualist means. If "such idiocies" have indeed been suggested by serious contemporary liberal thinkers (who?), this is an illiberalism which has surely been at the margins of egalitarianism. So there once again appears a danger that Red Tory accounts of the contemporary liberal-left are debating straw men.

As Tim Horton has argued (in a Fabian Review essay which coincidentally notes in passing that "to stop parents reading to their children in the name of equality of opportunity would be quite mad"), social democrats should respond to the ever increasing weight of evidence on how much family background matters to life chances with a richer account of why the family matters, valuing this not just as a 'transmission' means (where concerns about how family background entrenches inequalities might dominate) but also on family as an end in itself. A more equal life chances account would seek to support the broader distribution of 'relationship goods', and might also find some common ground with some non-market fundamentalist conservatives in recognising the pressures on family life come from the market, and not only from the risks of an excessively intrusive state.

I am not convinced by Milbank's argument that accounts of the acceptance of "justified inequality" have been primarily instrumental and utilitarian (for example, about economic incentives), as opposed to rooted in conceptions of fairness. There are, of course, a range of differences, depending in part on what type of egalitarian you are, as typologised for Next Left by Stuart White.

This (non-instrumental) motivation seems very clear in Tawney's famous encapsulation of his own argument for greater equality as freedom:

"While natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation. Indeed, individual differences are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are diminished."

Similarly, John Denham's recent "fairness challenge to a purely needs-based egalitarianism (itself strongly contested by Roy Hattersley) was founded neither on instrumental efficency arguments nor the tactical need to chime with what Denham has long argued is a "fairness code" of robust public intuitions about what's fair.

Rather Denham's central claim was that this idea of reciprocity represents an important core of the Labour tradition's socialist egalitarianism, though one less prominent for the post-1968 left (perhaps partly through the public and political influence of Rawls' Theory of Justice in the years after its publication in 1971).

This sense of fairness is based on the idea that there is a set of obligations and opportunities that should underpin British society. When people say 'it's not fair' it is usually because they believe that the balance of duties and rewards, of right and responsibilities, has been upset.

(These issues are debated further in the "Is equality fair? collection responding to the Fabian/JRF inequality attitudes research last year).

Interestingly, there is a (much less fully-frontal) critique of Rawls in the very interesting We mean power collection, published by Demos today. In their introduction, James Purnell and Graeme Cooke write:

For adults, there is a more complex interplay between our concern for equality, the reality of structural disadvantages, and our respect for effort and merit. People deserve a share of the proceeds of their work, whether through money, status or recognition. The liberal egalitarianism of John Rawls seems to neglect this moral intuition.

I am sympathetic to that challenge to Rawls. And, if I can get away with asking an instrumental question about political philosophy too, it did always seem to me that an academic debate which seemed to revolve primarily about whether Rawls' difference principle had legitimised too much inequality (by allowing inequalities which were in the interests of the worst-off) was one reason for a disconnect between how political ideas might inform an effective social democratic political project.

But perhaps Stuart may wish to mount a defence of Rawls' relevance from these different challenges from both right and left.


Immanuel Kant said...

Social democrats seem happy to accept inequalities of power in relation to citizen and state, to the extent to which they believe they are necessary to provide welfare services. So by that same logic, they would probably accept inequalities of power in the economy and the work place to the extent to which they think they are necessary to provide economic growth to finance the welfare state and maintain full employment. And inequality of income is an inequality of power.

But now, there appears to be a new emerging thinking on the left that is now beginning to challenge inequalities of power in relation to the citizen and welfare state, which were once believed to be inevitable by social democrats. Might other previous fatalist inevitabilities in the economy also be challenged by the emerging left?

Immanuel Kant said...

The modern left wants to pursue greater egalitarianism in ways that don't involve state interference, like making all parents read the same bed time stories to their children (that sounds like' Beatrice Webb meets Ceausescu'-ism).

The modern left does not regard taxation or progressive taxation as state interference.

So a progressively financed welfare state, controlled and managed by citizen's where ever possible, is the main tool to pursuing greater egalitarianism for the left, as it does not involve state interference.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for the interesting comments. And it is of course a great honour to have you with us here on Next Left!!