In the last week on Ox Stu, George Gillett has argued that distributing wealth according to academic ability is every bit as unfair as distributing according to family background. Joe Miles has pointed out that all distributions of wealth are fundamentally arbitrary. He argued that we should confine ourselves to the more modest goal of ensuring equality before the law. Nathan Akehurst’s response was to argue that equality before the law means very little if financial inequality keeps the power to manipulate the law in the hands of a few. Formal freedoms should not be confused with real ones.
I think it is worthwhile standing back at this point. I want to ask why it is that we feel dissatisfied with inequality in our society.
Nathan talked about how political power tends to follow from having the money. Joe also mentioned how money can buy people better lawyers in the criminal justice system. These are good perceptions of how money buys power in society. What’s interesting, however, is why it is we think the inequalities Joe and Nathan described are unjustified.
After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong about inequalities. The reason David Cameron is in Downing Street and not Gordon Brown is because of the inequality of power in Parliament that came about after the 2010 general election. Similarly, the reason that the prosecution of the Grillo sisters failed was because, at the end of the trial, the jury weren’t adequately convinced of Lawson & Saatchi’s accusations. An inequality in persuasive force at the end of the trial period handed victory to the defendants.
I think the reason comes down to our notions of desert. We’re happy to hand victory to one party over another if we believe their advantage arose through legitimate means. Cameron’s party won the highest number of seats in the general election, and therefore deserved the opportunity to form a government. Had they won through bribery or physical force, on the other hand, I doubt we’d be so happy about them taking power. We won the rugby against Cambridge due to the superior deployment of physical force; allotting victory there by vote would have been just as wrong as if Lawson had lost her court case due to bribes paid to the jury by the Grillos.
Legitimacy is therefore right at the heart of this whole debate about inequality. Feudal societies used the Divine Right of Kings and the chivalric code to legitimise the financial and sexual inequalities they were built upon. Tribal societies appealed to divine laws and holy teachings. Neoliberal capitalist society employs the story of intellectual meritocracy in a similar fashion – the rich deserve their wealth because they worked for it.
The trouble is that this story is no longer convincing. The deterministic ideas originally launched by Newton are filtering through into our political thought, into the arguments George and Joe were making earlier this week. The rich aren’t rich because they are better people under some divinely provided objective moral standard. The rich are rich because they are lucky: lucky in their inheritance, lucky in their skillsets and work ethics, lucky in being in the right place at the right time to make a fortune. We cannot justify the increased power of the wealthy in our society, and this upsets us.
As Joe notes, this also means we can’t turn to revolution as an answer. If all modes of wealth distribution are arbitrary, changing who is in power or how equitably money is shared doesn’t help justify the way society operates.
I believe that the answer instead lies in making sure that the things which are really important in life are kept independent from monetary control. If we can’t divide up wealth on objective standards of desert, we must settle for making sure that valuable human lives can be lived by everyone, regardless of how wealth is distributed. In many ways, this is the post-war dream of a socially democratic state: a world in which everyone has access to the means of living a ‘good’ human life.
On one level, this means the provision of essentials. Basic healthcare, housing and physical sustenance should not be divided up between people solely off the back of wealth. No-one should be left unable to live due to the arbitrary distribution of wealth.
But more than this, it also means providing people with the social bases of self-respect. The opportunity to work in non-demeaning jobs; access to education, both through a formal curriculum and the existence of public libraries; access to sporting facilities in the form of public swimming pools, parks and sports grounds, to the theatre and to film. Politics should be open to all, regardless of race, gender or wealth. We may not be able to live in an objectively just society, but we can do our best to minimise the impact of wealth inequalities on the chances of leading productive human lives.
What’s worrying is that it’s very easy for us to slip into the comfortable assumption that this is the kind of society the UK is at the moment. It isn’t.
Since the end of the 1970s, meritocratic talk of ‘individual desert’ has replaced the one nation political consensus of the post-war years. Those reliant on their communities for housing and sustenance are vilified and denied the respect of their fellow citizens. All political parties continue to rely on donations from wealthy individuals to fuel their campaigns, giving the rich increased influence over the law of the land. In the name of greater total GDP, the strong increasingly campaign to cut away the safety net that the weak rely on.
We are closer to the goal of ethical capitalism today than we have been for most of our nation’s history. That is the work of many of the great politicians and economists of the post-war years, Tories like Butler and Churchill, Labourites like Attlee and Keynes. But in the last thirty years, the neoliberal doctrine of the American right has entered British politics. It sees the state as an administrator over a workforce, and qualifies all things only in terms of economic efficiency.
For those of us from all parties interested in achieving justice without staking our hopes on a utopian revolution against capitalism, this is our enemy – and we must be prepared to fight it.
If you are interested in discussing how British social democracy might be revived, join us in the Sandel Club from Hilary Term onwards. We’re not party affiliated and you don’t need to have thought about these issues in advance to come along. Email [email protected] to find out more.