It’s taken me a few days to get around to it, but here’s my take on David Cameron’s equality speech (The Big Society: Hugo Young Lecture, 10 Nov 2009).
Cameron name checks Wilkinson and Pickett and says that they “have shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator”.
He then sets himself this rhetorical objective: how can you square an admission that less equal societies do worse than more equal societies with a long-standing Tory view on personal wealth: that is, the wealth of an individual is a reflection of the choices they have made. Since choice is good, material gains that aren’t explicitly judged unlawful must also be good. Here is an example of this kind of thinking in a 1977 speech by Margaret Thatcher:
The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior. … Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.
And of course this view was taken up almost wholesale by New Labour, so it’s a view that still has currency in a very large part of Britain’s polity. The problem for advocates of choice simpliciter is that choice is compatible with inequality. And it’s hard to be an advocate of inequality: at least, it’s hard to do it in a way that’s going to make you popular. Cameron’s way out suggests sleight of hand: he switches from talking about inequality measured across the whole of society to talking about inequality between those in the middle and the least well off:
We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom. Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.
And if our attention can be shifted towards the category of the least well off and away from the category of the wealthy, then perhaps we might just stop worrying about the wealthy. If this is Cameron’s purpose, he’s only following in the footsteps of New Labour’s Peter Mandelson, the man who told us he was ‘intensely relaxed’ about personal wealth.
But let’s say we take Cameron seriously: let’s say we agree that alleviating extreme poverty is the goal that matters and restrict our political aim to that. How can we reach that goal while (implicitly) either maintaining taxes at current levels or even reducing them? After all, in the same speech, Cameron tells us the increase in government spending since 1997 can’t be sustained. More than that, he argues: ‘large government’ has come to cause inequality:
But, quite apart from the fact that it turns out much of this has been paid for on account, creating debts that will have to be paid back by future generations; a more complete assessment of the evidence shows something different – that as the state continued to expand under Labour, our society became more, not less unfair.
Cameron’s answer, it seems, is to reduce state spending and curtail the role of government and instead go work on the way people think: children should get “better education” and adults should get better attitudes: “responsible behaviour” should be incentivised. Now this may make you think of New Labour, but forget them: to my mind, at least, the stall Cameron is setting out looks as ugly as anything yet brought forth by American conservatives. This is workfare advocacy. And the failure of this approach, of course, is just what people like Wilkinson and Pickett have been working hard to demonstrate.
But even if your stall is unattractive, you can set it out in an honest way. You might simply say: we believe that benefit claimants should do more to justify our support. Cameron goes beyond this. For one, his suggestion that the increase in state spending since 1997 (when New Labour took office) has caused inequality is really reaching. A history of UK wealth distribution shows that most of the post-war rise in inequality took place from the late 1970s to the early 1990s: all Tory years. This is well known. Even worse, Cameron conflates ‘size of government’ with ‘amount of state spending’. These are clearly not the same thing: you can have a small government that spends a lot, or you can have millions of bureaucrats who are needlessly penny-pinching. The complaint that many have made about New Labour is that they have promoted the second. It’s a reasonable complaint, yet it says nothing about the proper role of government: what its aims should be; what makes it legitimate.
Is there anything more going on in Cameron’s speech? Is there a broader ethical point? Is there anything new? I can’t see it. And an old idea which is not getting any Conservative Party air time, but which needs to, is this: an individual’s lawful choices may have bad consequences for others. If our lives go badly, we might have a share in the blame, but we don’t carry all of the blame. Where lives are blighted, adjudicated redress – where those who adjudicate are under democratic oversight – is justified. Taxes can be fair.