Level pegging costs

Living as Equals
May 9, 1997

The idea that human beings should live with one another as equals is deceptively simple but also disturbingly elusive. In the course of the past three centuries it has become a moral commonplace for part (if never for all) of the population of every country in the world. Even today, however, it would be hard to find a single state which could be claimed to be attempting to bring about equality in practical life, let alone which stood a chance of realising it. In Britain, after the past 18 years, we are conspicuously further from living with one another as equals than we were when Margaret Thatcher came to power; and no one could have mistaken the Britain of 1979 for a land of equality.

Why should moral intuition and political outcome be so devastatingly far apart? Why, more pressingly, should they be so much further apart in most areas of the world (including virtually all its wealthier areas) than they were 20 years ago? Why should the British Labour party in this election campaign scarcely have dared to present itself as champion of the worst-off (or even perhaps of the less well-off)? For enemies of equality the answers to these questions lie above all in the speciousness of its presumed moral appeal or the political bad faith of those who advocate it. But for its friends the answers must be less obvious and more likely to prove distressing. To its more resolute opponents equality has always been as absurd as it is unattractive, and its more threatening defenders, therefore, likelier to advocate it cynically to assist their own capture of power than from compulsive belief in its moral validity. Human beings plainly are not equal. They probably never have been in any instructive sense equal. They clearly cannot now be made equal; and any serious attempt to render them so, in the societies in which we at present live, will only do fearsome damage. If these are the charges against them, how are the beleaguered friends of equality to respond?

The authors of Paul Barker's collection are all very much friends of equality. They include some of the most prominent figures of the mid-Atlantic left of the past half century. The volume is a memorial to a radical economist, Eva Colorni, who died a dozen years ago at a tragically early age and was married to one of the contributors, the distinguished Indian economist, Amartya Sen. Its publication could scarcely be better timed. All the pieces reflect large bodies of work, done over several decades, which have clear implications for understanding equality's discomfiting recent political fate.

They vary greatly in scope and concreteness, and perhaps also somewhat in egalitarian animus. Two, by Tony Atkinson and Dorothy Wedderburn, deal with major issues of domestic social policy in the United Kingdom over the past half century. Two (by Albert Hirschman and Eric Hobsbawm) deal with the global political struggle for and against equality and over a far longer period, Hirschman focusing on the principal rhetorical strategies of the foes of equality since the French revolution, and Hobsbawm on the practical treacheries of struggles to establish a genuine political and social equality for speakers of different languages. Only one, by the American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, focuses directly on the question of what exactly it means to live as an equal.

The most politically acute and edged of the essays, Sen's own, attacks what he sees as the central dilemma which has occasioned the massive global victory of the right over the past two decades, the conflict between egalitarian commitment and financial prudence. Sen has no doubt that there is such a conflict. A dilemma, he insists, following John Dewey, is not a conflict between a good which one affirms and a bad which one rejects. Rather it is "a struggle within oneself", between different good things which in some degree pull against one another. The political victory of the right over the past two decades throughout the wealthier countries of the world has been to define politics as a choice between financial prudence and the pursuit of equality, and to convince a politically winning coalition within their electorates that, faced with this choice, it would be foolish or quixotic to choose anything but financial prudence.

Financial prudence is a more complicated conception in the case of a state than it is for an individual; but its relevance is every bit as peremptory. The financial imprudence of states has ruined lives by the hundred million over the past few decades. There is nothing ignoble or politically obsequious about the determination to avoid it. What is both ignoble and politically discreditable is the abandonment of virtually every other aim of social policy to the quest for financial, and hence macroeconomic stability. To live as equals, as Sen insists, we do not have to pursue equality in a manner which is bound to prove self-frustrating and destructive. We merely need to decide what level of risk and instability to accept in return for what increment in equality of outcome, by discussing the nature of the choice openly and frankly with one another, and choosing through a procedure which weights our conclusions equally, to do what we have so decided. The case for democracy, for sovereign political equality, is precisely that it and it alone can enable us to do this. It would be more encouraging if this British election campaign had been less grimly distant from anything of the kind.

It is an important political question, especially for egalitarians, just whose fault it has been that the campaign has been so egregious. On this occasion at least, it is easier to blame career politicians than the proprietors or editorial staffs of newspapers. But, given the very evident desire of career politicians to inform themselves about, and adjust their wares promptly to the susceptibilities of the less firmly anchored elements in the electorate, it is hard wholly to avoid blaming the electorate itself. Electors standardly know and care a great deal less about politics than do career politicians; and, by the time of an election, they can only make their choice between options which career politicians contrive to put in front of them. But there is no reason to see them as precondemned either to ignorance or confusion. The focus group seems an ideal setting in which to recognise that electors (all of us as we enter the polling booth) are largely responsible for their own ignorance and very frequently connive at and participate actively in their own confusion.

What Living as Equals does is to set this last election in the perspective of the history of politics since the French revolution. It shows how much the triadic conservative critique of the congenital imprudence of the programme of liberty, equality and fraternity (perverse, futile, or ever calculated to jeopardise earlier historical gains) has gone home. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction, published since he delivered the lecture printed in this book, tried to dissipate the polemical force of these rhetorical strategies in the Reagan era by showing their historical provenance and their essential crudity. But, as he himself came to recognise by the close of his book, its upshot was distinctly less encouraging for the friends of equality.

Hobsbawm's characteristically tart and realistic discussion of the politics of linguistic equality resonates throughout with the motifs of perversity and futility. Thirty years ago several of the book's authors would certainly have written their lectures on the premise that there existed a fairly clear and categorical alternative to capitalist society, one or other version of socialism, which could be confidently anticipated to prove on balance superior to it. Socialism was the social, political and economic form in which it was possible and desirable for human beings to live as equals; and capitalism was a system of social, political and economic organisation which could be still more confidently anticipated to preclude their doing so. Nothing which has happened over the ensuing thirty years has weakened the force of this last conclusion. But it is instructive that none of the contributors now cares to take their stand upon the former.

To defend equality effectively at this point, it is necessary either to show more clearly what it means and why it is morally compelling, or to establish that particular policies and practices which clearly embody it are practically more eligible or less blatantly odious than those which make no attempt to do so. Sen, Atkinson and Wedderburn all adopt the latter strategy, in each case very effectively. Wedderburn mounts a determined defence of the continuing good sense and massive decency of the original conception of the National Health Service. Atkinson vindicates the contributions to political clarity and the welfare of the worst-off which could be expected from adopting the alleviation of poverty as a permanent and central objective of national policy and issuing an annual public report on our progress (or otherwise) in achieving it.

Only Ronald Dworkin chooses the first course, developing an interpretation of the appeal of equality on which he has been working since at least the late 1970s, which construes it in terms of an equality of resources rather than one of welfare. This is a very subtle and illuminating essay; but it is also quite hard to take in imaginatively and somewhat nebulous in its political implications. Cast as an attempted refutation of the unmistakably politically consequential thesis that pursuing equality necessarily threatens liberty (the heart for over a century of intellectual defence of capitalism against socialism), it shows that any attractive understanding of what it would be to live as equals must be one which itself implied living in a high degree of liberty. After Dworkin's analysis, the idea of living as equals is very far from simple; but the politics and economics which it implies are still distressingly elusive.

The political triumph of the right over the past quarter of a century has rested on persuading electorates that living as equals is economically feasible only at ludicrous cost. That conviction has, for the moment, made it politically unfeasible even to advocate trying to do so, except in an autocracy (a conclusive barrier to equality in the first place). If we are ever to resume the attempt on any scale, we shall need to recover a way of envisaging equality which preserves the imaginative immediacy of the idea more successfully and attacks more frontally the structures which have jeopardised its economic or political feasibility so drastically. The power of the idea of living as equals comes from the collapse of any specifiable alternative structure of inferiority and superiority within which it might be more appropriate for us to live.

The huge and utterly morally arbitrary inequalities of modern societies can seldom, if ever, be bluntly affirmed in their entirety. But they certainly can be (and rather obviously are being) defended and deepened with the greatest energy and ingenuity in practice. To reverse this ugly momentum, we need to rediscover how to fight back.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Living as Equals

Editor - Paul Barker
ISBN - 0 19 829205 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 165

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