Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cleggism or liberalism?

Nick Clegg's efforts to shift the philosophical orientation of British liberalism, pitching its tent squarely on the terrain of the centre-right, continues apace with his article in today's Guardian (trailing his Hugo Young lecture tonight).

Having already conflated the liberal ideal of independence with the Thatcherite ideal of 'self-reliance', Clegg now tries to differentiate between an 'old progressivism' of income equality (bad) and a 'new progressivism' of social mobility (good):

'Social mobility is what characterises a fair society rather than a particular level of income equality. Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation....For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barrier to social mobility is.' (Emphasis added.)

As Sunder has already pointed out, the contrast conveyed in this passage is questionable on a number of grounds. Sociologically, social mobility is affected by income inequality. If you care about social mobility then you have at least an instrumental reason to care about limiting income inequality even if you think it unimportant for its own sake.

Philosophically, however, the position Clegg advances is implausible. Imagine a world where, through good fortune, Jones is 100 times richer in income than Smith but in which their positions will be reversed for their children. Does this reversal across the generations mean that the inequality within each generation is fair? The social mobility between generations may make the overall situation less unjust in one respect. But I do not see why it makes the inequalities within each generation fair. Clegg certainly offers nothing resembling a reason for this.

And, as a matter of intellectual history, few, if any, progressives have cared about reducing income equality rather than social mobility, as Clegg suggests. They have cared about both as ends in themselves.

Indeed, what is striking is just how far Clegg's attempt to define 'fairness' as social mobility rather than reduced income inequality breaks with the mainstream social liberal tradition. Whatever Clegg's 'new progressivism' is, it isn't mainstream social liberalism.

When it comes to the major figures of recent liberal political philosophy, such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, the point is obvious.

Rawls argues that the economic justice of a society is to be judged in part by how far it achieves 'fair equality of opportunity': roughly, people with similar natural abilities and motivation should have similar chances of occupational success regardless of their parents' background. This corresponds closely to Clegg's goal of social mobility.

But Rawls also famously argues that fair equality of opportunity by itself does not make a society just. For even with this kind of meritocracy, people with poorer natural endowments will fare worse in terms of income and wealth than those more fortunate in the genetic lottery. A just society must therefore seek to limit inequality of reward between jobs and offices as well as achieve a high degree of social mobility in competition for them.

Dworkin puts the point particularly forcefully when he argues that the conventional idea of equal opportunity, the kind Clegg celebrates under the heading of social mobility, is, by itself, 'fraudulent':

'…people are not equal in raw skill or intelligence or other native capacities; on the contrary, they differ greatly, through no choice of their own, in the various capacities that the market tends to reward. So some people who are perfectly willing, even anxious, to make exactly the choices about work and consumption and savings that other people make end up with fewer resources, and no plausible theory of equality can accept this as fair. This is the defect of the idea fraudulently called 'equality of opportunity': fraudulent because in market economy people do not have equal opportunity who are less able to produce what others want.'

The implication, as for Rawls, is that conventional equality of opportunity must be accompanied by efforts to reduce the inequality of reward between people who, through no fault of their own, have unequal productive or earnings capacity.

If we focus on early twentieth-century British social liberals like J.A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse we also see, again, a clear concern for the distribution of income as an important dimension of economic justice as well as equality of opportunity or social mobility. Both devoted a lot of attention to the question of what a just structure of rewards would look like, an intellectual preoccupation that would be distinctly odd if they thought income distribution unimportant to justice.

Nor can Clegg turn to the great icon of British liberalism, J.S. Mill, to support his view of fairness as a matter of social mobility rather than income equality. In his Autobiography, Mill sets out how he understands the core intellectual challenge to liberalism:

'The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.'

In other words: how can we combine liberty with equality? And what Mill means by equality is not (merely) equality of opportunity but clearly involves some degree of equality of resources - 'equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour' conjoined with 'common ownership of the raw material of the globe'.

So on one side we have Nick Clegg, the self-styled 'new progressive'. On the other side, we do not really have any 'old progressives', for, as Sunder points out, they are a caricatured invention of Clegg's article/lecture with little or no historical reality. Rather, what we have on the other side are thinkers like Rawls, Dworkin, Hobson, Hobhouse and Mill: the mainstream of the social liberal tradition.

The real choice, then, is not between the new and the old progressives.

It is between Cleggism and liberalism.


(Hat tip to my colleague, Krister Bykvist, for prompting me to think about the point in the fifth paragraph above.)


Chris Brooke said...

Free e-texts of Hobhouse's excellent (except for one or two bits) 1922 book, The Elements of Social Justice are available through this page. It really is a very fine book indeed.

Stuart White said...

Many thanks, Chris. Also excellent is Hobhouse's The Labour Movement (third edition, 1912), though I don't know of any electronic access.

Chris Brooke said...

Ah-ha! It's over here. Thanks for the recommendation: I haven't read that one.

bjbessey said...

Next Left does have a tendency to (very slightly) oversimplify the discussion of political philosophers, in a way that as a terrible pedant I find mildly annoying. Here it presents Rawls and Dworkin as representatives of a social liberal tradition that values income equality in itself. But neither actually does (at least officially). For Rawls departures from equality require special justification, but the disvalue of such departures is not intrinsic, but derivative of the value of moral equality represented by the choice situation behind the veil of ignorance. [On a post-Political Liberalism analysis]. For Dworkin, as represented in the quote, inequality of income in nonideal societies is unjust because such societies fail to compensate unchosen bad luck. The key word is compensate - both thinkers are open to potentially large amounts of de facto income inequality so long as the relevant intrinsic injustices have been remedied. (I know you know this, of course, but if you don't make it clear to readers who are less up on political philosophy, you are open to the criticism that you're papering over some pretty big cracks in your putative social liberal consensus.)

I won't dispute the description of Mill as (ultimately) a social liberal, but it might have been nice to have stressed the extent to which this is a departure from traditional classical liberal readings that rely overly heavily on the Political Economy stuff (and On Liberty), which remain dominant at least in popular understandings of his work.

Stuart White said...

bjbessey: many thanks for this. Your elaborations/refinements of Rawls' and Dworkin's positions are (I think, on first reading) correct.

Re Mill: I really do think those classical liberal readings are just lazy. Mill is so obviously not that kind of liberal - though, just as obviously, he is not anything like a conventional socialist either. He's a really interesting synthesiser of market liberalism and anti-capitalist thought.

Stuart White said...

Chris: many thanks for the electronic connection to The Labour Movement.

Rupert said...

bjbessey is right. Stuart's post is therefore wrong. In particular, consider this: "Imagine a world where, through good fortune, Jones is 100 times richer in income than Smith but in which their positions will be reversed for their children. Does this reversal across the generations mean that the inequality within each generation is fair?" And compare it with Rawls. There is nothing in Raws that guarantees a negative answer to the question asked.
Stuart is quite correct that Clegg is setting out a right-wing stance. But there is nothing intrinsic to it that makes it an illiberal stance. Liberalism is perfectly compatible with being right-wing. Clegg's words as quoted are not incompatible with Rawls.
Because of an unwise attachment to Rawls, an unwise attachment to the political philosophy of liberalism, because of a failure to embrace genuine egalitarianism, this is what Stuart and other Fabians cannot admit.

Stuart White said...

Rupert: Rawls' view is that inequalities (e.g, in income) are justified to the extent that they work to the benefit of the worst off. How much inequality this justifies is, indeed, then an empirial question. However, what Rawls clearly does not think is that so long as we have social mobility we can be indifferent to how much income inequality there is - that this is somehow, as Clegg suggests, not relevant to fairness. Clegg's claim, in essence is: 'You don't have to justify income inequality so long as you get social mobility right'. And that view certainly isn't shared by Rawls (or Dworkin or Hobson or Mill...)

Richard said...

I think the point about Clegg's social mobility argument si that he misunderstands Liberalism. Liberalism is about personal freedom and achieving the maximum amount of personal freedom for the maximum number of people.

Social mobility allows people to move up and down BUT it still leaves a load of people at the bottom with very little freedom.

If Clegg read the back of his membership card he would read that the Lib Dem constituion says we exist to ensure "no one shall be enslaved by poverty".

Sadly dismal words of my party leader can probably be found nearly verbatim in the speeches of Mrs Thatcher.

badconscience.com said...

*I know nothing about Wittgenstein, but hey, why not go and accuse some Wittgenstein scholars of crass error and stupidity regarding their specialist field?*