Boris Johnson’s remarks on inequality point to a very uncomfortable truth


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This is a response to George Gillett’s excellent article on inequality that you can read here. To summarise, he attacks Boris Johnson’s prioritisation of academic excellence, highlighting that IQ is not something that an individual chooses and therefore to accord great rewards solely to those who are intelligent is unjust. As much as we might want to think otherwise (most of us have something of a vested interested in being accorded greater financial reward than those unfortunate enough to study at Cambridge), the argument is sound. If inequalities that are not outcomes of human choice are unjustified, and intellect is not an outcome of human choice, then inequality on these grounds is unjustified.

Unfortunately, upon closer inspection it appears as if there are not a lot of things that can justify any sort of inequality. Social mobility is such an issue because of the natural tendency of poorer families to be trapped in a cycle of poverty.  Family background does not just affect IQ; there are countless studies that show that a child from a family with a history of valuing academic achievement tends to put more effort into their studies. Not only is being clever not a matter of choice, neither is being hard-working, nor caring, nor any other positive (or negative) personality trait. I have yet to see a conclusive argument that determinism is not true, and this being so there are no factors of our personality that cannot be traced to the influence of either our family or peers, or the greater outside world; in any case, forces entirely beyond our control.

This leaves us with two options, the first of which is to accept that no inequality is justified. Doing so tends to lead to rather unpalatable social conclusions. We might first try to mitigate the effects of inequalities in human beings; I recommend reading Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron to realise why this is a terrible idea. The picture he paints is of a nightmare dystopia where the intelligent are fitted with brain implants to dull their thoughts, and the strong are tied down with chains to impede their movements, and so on. Society could no more function along these lines than it could in a rampantly unequal society. Failing that, we could always accept that humans will never be the same, but at least treat them if they were. Admittedly we can do so by according all equal civil and political rights, but I do not think that is what Gillett has in mind, given that he devotes his article to economic equality. The Marxist might be delighted by this, but sadly “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” does not work in this context. Those of greater ability are expected to contribute more; but nobody chooses to have greater ability. It is very difficult to imagine a truly equal society in economic terms.

This is why I propose that we abandon the central tenet of Gillett’s argument, and suggest that equality is not a fundamental political value.  In light of the fact that determinism is almost certainly true, we cannot hang onto the idea that unchosen inequalities are unjustified. This is not to say that equality is not in some way important; it is just not the most important social principle. Rather, we recognise that financial equality is important because it has a tendency to promote other values that we hold dear. Note that I say financial equality specifically, as I do believe that one form of equality is universal and does not lead to the unpleasant social conclusions that I set out in the previous paragraph. This is the equality that says that by virtue of our humanity we are entitled to the same basic rights and respect, and I call this social and political equality.


This allows us to escape the murky quagmire of unbridled equality in all its forms, by allowing that economic equality is undesirable insofar as it prevents us from recognising this more fundamental form of social and political equality. Take the case of the teenager who recently escaped a custodial sentence for killing four people whilst drunk driving. His lawyers successfully argued that his family was rich enough to spoil their son so badly that he was therefore unable to properly understand the consequences of his actions. As disgusting as this argument might be, this does not prevent it having a grain of truth. If one inhabits a world where hurting people is just another problem that is solved by throwing money at it until it goes away, then this reduces one’s capacity to relate to others as human beings. It is not hard to imagine how this can lead to irresponsible behaviour. The rise of the new super-rich elite in the past two decades who have more in common with each other than with the citizens of their own country might be what helped to spur the financial crisis. Just as casualties in foreign wars are mere statistics to most of us, so each new repossession and family without food on the table is only a statistic to the world’s global financiers.

I do agree with Gillett that a society that only rewards academic excellence is a sick one, but for very different reasons. If people with different talents are not at least reasonably able to do well as far as their talents are of benefit to society, then undoubtedly those who do not have academic talent will become alienated from those who do. At a time when solidarity among fellow citizens is perhaps lower than ever, this is the last thing that society needs.


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