Saturday, September 22, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 2: Equality Matters

Here, Duncan Brack advocates the pursuit of equality, by which he means a significant reduction in inequality of outcome. The mathematician in me rails against such abuse of the word equality, but I will live with it. He calls the idea of equality of opportunity a get out, which I think is a little unfair. Opportunity is a kind of outcome that gives rise to further outcomes. So it deserves special attention because investments in opportunity have a higher payoff than investments in other outcomes.

Brack then spends some time going through statistics demonstrating the degree of inequality found in the UK, and recent trends. To be honest this all leaves me quite cold. The pertinent question would seem to me to be quite how awful it is living on Job Seeker's Allowance (eg £46.85 per week for ages 18-24), or Income Support. I don't see, to be honest, how this depends much on the sort of statistics that are generally quoted. Rather, it would depend on access to local amenities, the local of cost living, frugal habits and a stoical outlook.

I get suspicious when an appeal to moral sentiment, well justified or not, gets dressed up in statistics in the hope of lending it scientific backing. For the record, I agree that living at these income levels is pretty awful for most people, and there is a good moral case for increasing these benefits, although it is probably a "political impossibility" for any party.

The old relative v absolute poverty chestnut is relevant here. Relevant, but simplistic. The single parent on benefits is much poorer than the average (relative), but much richer than many in the third world (relative again). And there are many important goods and services he or she cannot afford (absolute). Obviously by talking about inequality, Brack is focussing on relative poverty. Unfortunately in discussing the harm that results from poverty, little attempt is made to distinguish between the two.

Brack refers to John Rawls Difference Principle, that inequality could only be justified if it proved to be to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. This stems from Rawls' Veil of Ignorance, which is the idea that asks how you would design a society, in your own rational self-interest, if the veil hid from you any information about your position in that society, or your capacities for self-improvement.

I think the veil of ignorance is a brilliant idea for understanding ethics. But there are some questions that have to be asked here:
  1. Does it really justify the difference principle? Might not the person in the veil be willing to take a bet, and risk a small disadvantage if they were poor, in return for a much greater chance to prosper if they were rich, or able and hard-working.
  2. Do we really, as liberals, want our society to be entirely "designed"? Should it not be largely organic? In which case the question "how would you design..." carries a big bad assumption. I think we are OK on this point if we restrict ourselves to particular reforms, and propose nothing too comprehensive or revolutionary. cf Popper.
  3. It is not clear how we solve problems of inter-generational equity. How much duty do we have to the people of the future to leave them a more prosperous society than we have? Hardly any, according to the difference principle - if the poorest of the future are any richer than the poorest of the present, then it is only the poorest of the present who matter according to the principle, and we should sacrifice all incentives in order to help them. But if we actually do that we will make the future poorer. So the difference principle seems to demand a carefully-balanced almost-stagnation.
Where does this leave us? I think the contrast between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian capitalism might be characterised by the Anglo-Saxon being more of a gambler as in point 1. I think a big difference between the liberal and the authoritarian/marxist/neo-con etc is that we are suspicious of 'design' as in point 2. And finally point 3 reminds us to strike a sensible balance between the present and the future. As long as the future is somewhat richer than the present, has a good environment, and so on, we should largely trust it to look after itself. Too much focus on incentives leads to the brutality of the workhouse, benefiting future people who will be better off than us anyway: our need is greater. Too little focus on incentives, or the environment, and the problems are obvious.

That would be my perspective on Rawls, so I am unconvinced by an essay that simply takes the difference principle as read.

While of course most of the specific examples Brack gives on the problems of poverty are correct, I have one final complaint, and it is this. The only specific proposal to solve these problems seem to be higher taxes on the rich. What would this actually do? It could pay for an extra £10 on JSA, but Brack doesn't mention this. Or it could go to a less means-tested benefit like child benefit or a Citizens Income. Or it could be spent on education and Sure Start centres. Why, if all the problems are hitting the poor are the solutions not discussed at all? Do you want me to agree that we must do something, before you tell me what something you had in mind? We must do something! This is something! We must do it!

I believe equality matters, and we should pursue it. It is sometimes difficult to weigh up against other goals, but that is politics. So why did I find this chapter so unconvincing?


Bishop Hill said...

It's not at all clear to me how Brack's ideas could be categorised under "Reinventing the state". This is "more of the same please" isn't it?

Joe Otten said...

Perhaps. But if the state has failed thus far to deliver sufficient equality, perhaps sufficient equality is something new. I don't suppose you will buy this, I don't really myself.

I dare say there are new ways, if we can think of them, that the state could pursue greater equality. Perhaps there will be some later in the book.

But I agree that on its own, this chapter doesn't merit the title of the book.