Tuesday 30 November 2010


In a comment on an earlier post Chris Wales confesses that he's not too keen on the state trying to preserve a measure of equality in society. Rather,if I've understood him correctively, he is in favour of unfettered (and not necessarily equal?) opportunity.

This is an interesting question and deserves a full post (and perhaps several) rather than an additional comment.

Most modern states, as Chris acknowledges, accept that there should be some sort of welfare safety net to prevent too severe destitution, and we have had such as system, with varying degrees of generosity, in this country since the Elizabethan Poor Law. It was Jo Grimond, in an article, I think in the Observer the early 1960s, who alerted my to the concept that the democratic state also had a duty to prevent some people becoming too rich, because, as I recall, they endangered democracy. Lord Aschcroft, Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi are prime examples of how right he was (as in so many other things.)

A few rich individuals perhaps add a bit of glamour to society (the Dockers provided it in the 1950s, though, as far as I know, they paid their taxes, and at a pretty high rate) but a substantial section of society who become so rich that they are detached from the rest of us, live in gated communities and cease to be affected by our common concerns endanger the cohesiveness of our society, just as does the detachment of the bottom 20% into their separate Toynbee "caravan." We would be so much happier as a society if we really were "all in this together." This explains so many people's nostalgia for the war years, when the rich as well as the poor had a chance of being bombed out of their homes or called up for service.

It is a sad reflection on the current spirit of the Labour Party that, although Ed Milliband seems keen to retain the 50% higher tax rate as a matter of principle other senior members aren't so sure. When Neil Kinnock was their leader his book choice on Desert Island Discs was R H Tawney's "Equality", which contains this wonderful passage:

"It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconvenience of their position by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles, and nothing more, the more fortunate of the species will one day shed their tales , distend their mouths and stomachs, hop nimbly on to dry land, and croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs"
(Allen and Unwin edition,1931, page 142)

As Tawney clearly saw, equality of opportunity is merely equality of opportunity to become unequal. To become unequal and not pay your dues to the society that enabled you to do so is even less acceptable.


  1. The real problem is that humans are not equal. Gataca is exactly how the world works right now without any genetic engineering. Imagine enforcing equality in that narrative, there would certainly be less space missions.

  2. I think I'm honour-bound to comment on this one! As you say, I think it probably merits a number of posts/comments. In particular, this concept of a duty in preventing people becoming too rich is a fascinating and indeed controversial one - but then I come here to be challenged, so I'm more than happy to explore it!

    Off the bat, I think a number of interesting questions arise:

    - In regards to this duty, do you see that we are saving these people from themselves (in becoming distanced from society like Toynbee's caravan), or that we are saving society from them?
    - For every Murdoch, Ashcroft and Berlusconi, there's a Warren Buffett, a Bill Gates, a Sir Titus Salt, an Andrew Carnegie, a Michael Bloomberg, Sir Tom Hunter, Dr Walter Scott... doesn't in fact a cross-section of the richest show as many high profile philanthropists, and many who give amply of their time and wealth to good causes, as it does greedy bankers? Does this not make them akin to every other section of society in that there are desirables and undesirables, and shouldn't our greater focus be on the real cause of the problem (the choice of some people to disregard society)?
    - On your last point; opportunity to become unequal is something I'm very comfortable with it, provided it reflects merit, effort and contribution to society - that's where I believe efforts should be focussed. The problem with equality of outcome, I believe, is that it presupposes that those who *can*, will put in broadly equal effort (that is to say equal 'perspiration', rather than equal levels of skill or talent which will naturally vary) and thus should equally share the spoils. In practice I think we have to accept that whilst we should never stop trying to encourage all to participate fully in working for society's benefit, some will choose not to and it is not fair to share the spoils equally with them; in fact, it acts as a strong disincentive to those whose desire to contribute is fairly weak.

  3. Re Anonymous: I had to look up "Gattaca." It soundsds like a modern version of Huxley's "Brave New World." I think you confuse "equality" with "sameness" when,in this contexts, they are not identical concepts. Although we are all different we are all, for example, equal before the law (or would be if some people were not able to engage posher lawyers.) There are no special categories as there were, for example, in France before the Revolution and in this country before the abolition of the right to be tried in Church courts. The aim is to achieve equality of status as citizens, but within that context the more diversity the better.