Wednesday 6 October 2010

The revolutionary nature of his doctrine: David Cameron on fairness

In an earlier post, Sunder has discussed David Cameron's call 'for a new conversation about what fairness really means.'

Cameron's key point:

'Fairness means giving people what they deserve. And what people deserve depends on how they behave. If you cannot really work, we will look after you. But if you can work, but refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.'

As Sunder suggests, the principle is hardly new. Indeed, the principle that income entitlement should track productive contribution is one that has been central to theories of justice set out by many thinkers of the left. Take the case of R.H. Tawney. His book, The Acquisitive Society, is dedicated to the proposition that income should be linked to productive contribution.

Tawney himself learned quite a bit from New Liberals like Leonard Hobhouse. And in one of his books, The Labour Movement, first published in 1893, Hobhouse had something to say that is very pertinent to David Cameron's remarks on the duty to work of the welfare poor:

'The concerned lest we should insist too much on rights and too little on duties....The only doubt is whether the stern disciplinarians who insist on self-support fully realise the revolutionary nature of their doctrine. If a system is wrong which maintains an idle man in bare necessaries, a system is much more wrong which maintains an idle man in great superfluity, and any system which allows the inheritance of wealth on the great scale is open to criticism on this score.'

In other words (and the point is also noted by Will Straw): what about those who grab 'something for nothing' through wealth that they have done nothing to deserve?

Hobhouse points in the above passage to large-scale inheritance of wealth as an example of wealth that enables you to live off the labour of others without working in return.

But even if wealth is initially earned, its value can then appreciate enormously quite independently of one's efforts providing a 'something for nothing' windfall to the lucky owner. Tawney and Hobhouse were both aware of a long line of liberal (and Liberal) criticism of non-working landowners on this basis. More generally, this is why left liberal and social democratic thinkers have historically argued for taxes on inheritance, land values, and capital gains. It has, I think, also contributed to the case for progressive income tax, following the supposition that higher labour incomes are more likely to contain a 'rental' component that is not truly deserved.

So the principle of contribution has been integral to the left's understanding of justice. What distinguishes the left's position is the way it has used this principle to develop a critique of undeserved wealth rather than using it simply as a basis for evaluating welfare policy.

New Labour never really managed to tap into and apply this critique. Indeed, in recent years it is the Liberal Democrats, and the Orange Bookers at that, who have arguably made the running when it comes to making the case for wealth taxation.

So let's give David Cameron the conversation he wants. But we won't rise to the challenge simply by calling for more work from the welfare poor. In joining the conversation, we need to shift or widen its focus. We need to find an accessible way of posing the question that was always obvious to Hobhouse and Tawney: What about undeserved wealth?

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