Why we should spurn equality and meritocracy

Against Equality of Opportunity
June 21, 2002

What legal constraints should we impose on the terms by which an employer can hire labour or allocate more protracted employment? Why should we impose those constraints and not others? What objectives should we pursue in designing or modifying markets in labour? What goals should we adopt in shaping public policy and developing the legal framework within which we live together as members of a society and citizens of a state? What exactly is wrong in discriminating between potential employees on grounds of race, gender, class, religious or political affiliation, or more idiosyncratic personal tastes or aversions? To which aspects, if any, of these questions should we look to philosophers for the answer?

Matt Cavanagh's punchy and tenacious book has something to say about all of these questions, and develops an assured (if practically pessimistic) view of what philosophy has to offer us in face of them.

The least politically contentious judgement in Britain at present about the external standard that we should apply to the operations of the economy is that we should enforce upon it, if nothing else, at least the requirement that it should give all its citizens of working age an equal opportunity to work as their capacities equip them to.

Cavanagh's main aim is to discredit this conclusion as comprehensively as possible, for two quite distinct reasons: first because of its debilitating vagueness, and second because of its close association with a pair of normative ideals, each of which he also roundly rejects.

The two ideals that he spurns - substantive equality of outcome and meritocracy (the allocation of jobs by desert) - both have many prominent advocates. One or other, on preliminary reflection, carries at least some normative appeal for virtually anyone educated in Britain over the past few decades who has not essentially rejected the normative consensus of the society to which they belong. To refuse both at once is thus to court a wide array of enemies and risk not merely prompt rejection in return but also much contumely and fairly drastic political misidentification. Could anyone repudiate both and not be well on the way towards joining Jean-Marie le Pen or Nick Griffin?

This is an even bolder book read today than it can have been over the years in which it was being thought and written. It is audacious, however, not because it is deliberately transgressive but because of its striking intellectual obstinacy and fastidiousness and because of the confidence with which Cavanagh holds his intellectual ground.

What is wrong in his eyes about both egalitarianism and meritocracy is not merely the very considerable residual vagueness of each but also the rapid seepage of normative plausibility that occurs when either is considered with real energy. Egalitarianism Cavanagh sees as grounded in a more or less hysterical rejection of the radical contingency out of which everyone's life is exhaustively composed. The imaginative impetus behind it drives it relentlessly towards complete incoherence. The political project of applying it to the operations of a capitalist economy equivocates between blatant insincerity and self-evident absurdity, with no potentially stable stopping point in between. Such normative appeal as it does carry insistently suggests that it is capitalism itself that must be rejected, for its central and ineliminably inegalitarian logic. Now that rejecting capitalism has come to be seen as politically prohibitive (and perhaps also as practically indefensible), egalitarian advocacy becomes at best a form of ethical reverie, not an accountable political proposal.

Meritocracy, by contrast, appears at first sight more a suggestion for how to run a capitalist economy effectively than a forlorn attempt to deny that one is conspicuously in operation. Yet even as an efficiency recipe it is either too specific to carry a trace of normative appeal or too vague to offer any practical guidance.

As he moves through the book, Cavanagh explores painstakingly the resources of each of these ideas for handling the questions he has in mind, and the range of tasks that they need to be able to carry out to handle those questions convincingly. He is sensitive throughout to why we find these conceptions so appealing, but indefatigable in demonstrating why neither is equipped to carry out most of these tasks at all steadily or cogently. As a piece of consecutive thinking about the goals of defensible public policy in a modern democracy, his book gives an object lesson to anyone who cares about its politics and acknowledges the responsibility to try to understand what is really at stake in them.

But Cavanagh himself has no illusions about the prospective impact of this kind of thinking. For anyone so determinedly undeceived, a large proportion of the motivation behind his thinking, over and above the personal rewards of clearing his own mind, must hang on its potential impact on his fellow philosophers. Here the main factor is not the sheer intelligence or industry of his analysis but the conception of the role of theory within practical reason that lies behind it and is embodied in it.

Cavanagh does not just happen to believe that no interpretation of equality as a value, or of how merit and the opportunity for paid work should be related to one another, in fact shows us how we should structure our labour markets or shape our public law. He also believes that no such general normative conception could cover, and show us how to organise, the most fundamental features of our collective life together determinately and in detail. He simply holds a different view of the scope and authority of theory within practical reason from that presupposed by most of the leading political philosophers of today. Against Equality of Opportunity will scarcely convince them that their principal intellectual strategies and ambitions are misconceived. The rest of us should consider carefully whether his main operating assumption is not in fact wiser than theirs.

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

Against Equality of Opportunity

Author - Matt Cavanagh
ISBN - 0 19 924343 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 223

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