3 November 2014

What does “equality” really mean?


In the war of ideas, it is hard to win conclusive intellectual victories. Equality is a good example. In 1980, egalitarian socialism was firmly on the British political agenda. In the US, Jimmy Carter may not have proclaimed himself a socialist, but he did appear to have undermined his fellow Americans’ self-confidence. New Deal assumptions about the size and role of the state were still dominant. Then came Thatcher and Reagan.

Their approaches were different. He did not deal in ideology. Instead, he evoked traditions and values. A politician who could have made motherhood and apple pie sound like a brilliantly original insight, he reminded Americans of their heritage: their right to self-help in a land full of opportunity.

Confronted by explicitly socialist – indeed Marxist – opponents, Margaret Thatcher adopted a different approach. Many Europeans, and a fair few Brits, believed in moral and intellectual appeasement and were ready to acquiesce in the Left’s command of the moral high ground. Mrs Thatcher was having none of that. With a much more combative personality – President Reagan himself sometimes felt the weight of her handbag – she eschewed emollience.

That was especially true over equality. Whether it was high tax rates, which she cut, or intellectual fashion, which she repudiated, she took the war to the enemy. She insisted that you do not make the poor rich by making the rich poor. She pointed out that the Good Samaritan was only able to help the victim because he had money in his pocket. One of the volumes of her speeches was entitled “Let Our Children Grow Tall”. Suddenly, the entrepreneurially-minded British realised that they no longer had to emigrate in order to make their fortunes.

A decade of Reaganite/Thatcherite success culminated in the fall of the Soviet Union. Even Lefties who would have indignantly protested against any suggestion that they were fellow-travellers had taken political comfort from the thought that, however imperfectly, a large proportion of the globe was building socialism and was entitled to claim moral equivalence with the West, if not indeed moral superiority. To be fair, they were not fellow-travellers – merely useful idiots. Anyway, the idiocy was suddenly exposed as fantasy. The isms became wasms.

There were other developments. Thomas Piketty’s recent book advocating equality is full of equations, most of which are either banal, irrelevant or wrong. Professor Arthur Laffer did not attempt to mystify his audience with Maths. Newton observed the fall of an apple; Laffer drew a curve on a paper napkin: genius out of simplicity. Lower tax rates will produce higher tax revenues. Once the striving and the successful are no longer so weighed down by financial gravity, economies will flourish. In the developing world, meanwhile, there was a dramatic divergence. Some counties embraced free trade, braced themselves for globalisation, and embraced personal economic freedom. They prospered. Others stuck to socialism, statism and corruption. They continued to suffer.

One might have concluded that egalitarianism was dead: that defying the commonsense nostrums of free market economics would be as sensible as rejecting the laws of arithmetic. That, alas, would be naive. It rests on two false assumptions. First, that Lefties are interested in commonsense. Second, that they accept the rules of arithmetic, when they actually believe that two and two equals six (that said, under Leftist tutelage, two and two will often equal, at most, one). After 1990, the egalitarians were not dead, only sleeping.

In recent years, they have re-awakened. This was partly due to the banking crisis. In the UK, we were fortunate that it occurred under a Labour government. Had the Tories been in power, with Gordon Brown as a formidable Leader of the Opposition, the consequences would have been disastrous. But since 2008, the equality activists have been on the attack, and they include Barack Obama. It is fortunate that he has been such an inadequate President.

Moreover, the egalitarians had made longer-term plans to subvert the free market. In 1945, everyone in Britain knew what poverty was. It meant children suffering from malnutrition in ghastly slums. In the post-war years, under Tory governments as well as Labour ones, that sort of poverty was eradicated. This explains an interesting phenomenon in Hansard, the record of British Parliamentary proceedings. From 1949 until 1969, there are no index references between population and Powell, J. Enoch. In other words, there were no debates on poverty. But Leftist sociologists (that is probably a tautology) then came up with a cunning wheeze: relative deprivation. This meant that any household in which the family income was less than sixty per cent of the national average was living in poverty. As a result, and however rich it became, no society could ever eliminate poverty, unless it became drastically egalitarian.

The philosophical split is in plain view. The egalitarians do not believe in private property. Whether it be John Rawls or Thomas Piketty, they insist that the state has the right to seize assets, not just to fund its legitimate activities, but as a form of social engineering. The late Frank Johnson once wrote that the Left had given up trying to nationalise businesses. It now wanted to nationalise people. He may have been too optimistic about their plans for business; he was right about the people, and the assault on property rights is a crucial part of their strategy.

From Locke onwards, all the exponents of individual freedom have recognised the crucial importance of private property. Equally, if you want to re-shape human nature, you ought to start by assailing private property, which is a vital underpinning of civil society, itself an indispensable component of a free society.

The modern state has to be funded, which means tax rates that would have appalled Jefferson or Gladstone. Those who believe in freedom and prosperity must exercise eternal vigilance to keep the state’s appetite within bounds. They will find it easier to do so if they hold to the principles of classical liberalism, especially Gladstone’s precept: “money is best left to fructify in the pockets of the people”.

As for equality, a state such as the UK which spends more than forty per cent of GDP should have more than enough resources to create opportunities. Above all, that ought to be true of education, the most effective way of disseminating opportunity. But equality of opportunity is nothing to do with equality of outcome. A good education should equip a child from a poor background with the chance to become triumphantly unequal.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.