14 June 2015

Paul Krugman right about something, shock


Bruce Anderson is wrong and Paul Krugman is right – at least on the minor point about whether equality of opportunity can ever be a cause which those who believe in freedom can support.

In his (otherwise brilliant) CapX article, Anderson writes that:

“Here, Tories have been careless. Some of them have been far too ready to toss around the word equality without adding the vital qualification: “of opportunity.”

That seems to imply that equality of opportunity is a good thing for Tories. But in contrast Paul Krugman wrote a few years ago that:

“When you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society.”

So why is Krugman (for once) right? Consider a simplistic comparison between, say, the child born to a happy and well-off family, living in a cultured and book-filled house who will be sent to a good school; and the child born into a dysfunctional, drug-fuelled family living on the top floor of a dilapidated council block who will go to a wretched school.

Can the state really equalise the opportunities those two children face? Of course if can’t (at least not without North Korean-style socialist policies of levelling down). Whether you like it or not, both children can never realistically have equality of opportunity; and as such it should not be the role of the state to try to achieve that outcome.

It is easy to be negative. Luckily, there is an alternative. Conservatives (and others) surely believe all humans possess inherently equal rights, including not least equality before the law.

And Conservatives surely also accept – indeed welcome – that people are unequal, not in their moral worth, but in their talents and abilities. As the above extreme comparison suggests, some will inevitably be fortunate in the circumstances of their birth, others less so. The important conclusion to draw is that people should not face any restriction in using the lottery of their birth to do the best for themselves, their families and their wider community.

If that premise is accepted, then the role of what the state should and should not do is clear: it should not confiscate books from the middle class family, nor should it send free copies of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist to every flat in a tower block. But it should do all it can to reduce barriers to aspiration so that all can do as well as they can (ideas which are of course set out so well in Bruce Anderson’s piece, not least in providing better schools and a better welfare system for all).

This is of course partly a semantic squabble. But it does betray a certain degree of confusion. Take for example, the Prime Minister’s statement that:

“I believe in equality of opportunity. No one should be held back by not being able to get the training, education and skills that they need.”

The second sentence of that statement is of course laudable, realistic in its ambition and an all round good thing. But it would never be enough to fulfil the supposed aspiration of the first sentence.

So Conservatives should refrain from using the term “equality of opportunity”. Yes, we should fight hard for policies which clear obstacles and remove barriers. Yes, we should explain how these are more likely to do most for the least fortunate in society. But no, we should not fall into the socialist trap of thinking that equality of opportunity is either desirable or achievable.

Tim Knox is Director at the Centre for Policy Studies