C O N T R A P R O P A G A N D Ă

A reply to David Laws, MP

The following is in great part speculative. It is not presented as a definitively formed critique. I appreciate any replies and responses, so long as they are carefully considered given how difficult the subject matter is.

On Monday 9th February I attended an event hosted by the think tank Centre Forum, at which David Laws, Liberal Democrat MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families presented a paper on equality in the UK. The paper is being distributed by Centre Forum, along with replies by Greg Clark (Conservative shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) and Jon Cruddas (Labour MP for Dagenham and notorious party rebel who came 3rd in the last Labour deputy leader contest), who also spoke at the event. It costs £6 and you can order it from Centre Forum via the above link.

My aim here is to offer a reply to David Laws’ essay, and I’ve endeavored to present one which is accessible to somebody who hasn’t yet read it. In fact, this turns out not to be so problematic, as Laws’ essay is quite typical of the dominant trends in thinking about equality in British politics over the last 20-30 years. I will here argue that Laws’ essay is vulnerable to two broad criticisms, one from within his own intellectual framework, and one from without. When combined, they demonstrate that Laws’ proposals to deal with inequality leave a lot to be desired.

Before continuing, I should stress that Laws’ essay is a very good one. It is well argued, highly cogent and powerful. To demonstrate its failings therefore requires a particular approach. Rather than taking issue with particular points made, or intellectual manoeuvres deployed, it is necessary to understand the holistic structure of Laws’ thinking on inequality.

To do this, we start by laying out the core structure of Laws’ thinking on equality, which is typical of mainstream thinking on the matter for the past 20-30 years, but especially since the premiership of Tony Blair. It goes, in stripped-down form, like this:

1.     Meritocratic society is the most desirable form of society.

2.     Meritocratic society requires equality of opportunity if it is to be truly meritocratic.

3.     Britain at present has aspirations to be a meritocratic society and is becoming more so in some respects. However the level of equality of opportunity in Britain at present is below that required for genuine meritocracy.

4.     Therefore the primary consideration for modern Britain is to improve levels of equality of opportunity, thus bringing about genuine meritocracy (which is the most desirable form of society).

This 4-stage reasoning process helps to understand both Laws’ position and my critique of it. However it is complex, employs a great deal of hidden or pre-assumed reasoning, and therefore needs to be explained at some length.

The first premise (1) is highly important, and facilitates my criticisms of Laws which I describe as being external to his system of thinking. To pre-empt what I will argue later, I believe premise 1 is wrong, or perhaps better, inadequate, as it stands. This, however, will be clearer if we come back to it later.

Let us now focus on the second premise (2); that meritocratic society requires equality of opportunity if it is to be truly meritocratic. This is certainly true, as it is merely a statement of the logic of what “meritocracy” means. Unfortunately that logic is rarely spelled-out and made clear (for example, Laws’ simply uses the terms meritocracy and equality of opportunity without ever explaining what they mean or how they relate to each other). This is problematic, as it prevents proper understanding of the issues at stake – but it’s also not surprising, because the logic is very tricky and requires a lot of careful reasoning. I will try and expound that reasoning now.

A meritocracy is a politico-economic system under which people advance according to “merit”. That is, Mrs Jones gets a job instead of Mr Smith because Mr Jones had more “merit”, whatever “merit” means in this case. (For example if the job in question is news reporting for The Telegraph, under a meritocracy Mrs Jones ought to get the job because she is a better news reporter than Mr Smith. If Mr Smith gets the job because he went to the same Oxford College as the editor of the Telegraph even though he is a worse news reporter than Mrs Jones, then this is not a meritocratic appointment).

Now a meritocracy, if it is to truly be such, requires equality of opportunity. At this point things can get out of control unless we handle them very carefully. There is an obvious way in which meritocracy relates to equality of opportunity, which we can see if we consider the following example. Imagine Mrs Jones and Mr Smith apply for a job. Under a meritocracy, the person with the most “merit” should get the job. Factors which do not impact upon their ability to do the job in question – that is, things which do not add or subtract from their merit – should not be considered. The obvious example of (typically) non-relevant factors are things such as race, gender, sexuality or class. If an employer gave the job to Mr Smith because he is a man and Mrs Jones is not, even though being a man had no bearing on either candidate’s ability to do the job in question, this would not be a meritocratic appointment.

Equality of opportunity which excludes the consideration of non-relevant factors (such as race, gender, sexuality etc) should be both relatively non-controversial and obviously connected to meritocracy. In modern Britain, few would wish to defend an employer’s right to discriminate on grounds of a person’s skin colour or gender. And we can see why this connects to meritocracy quite easily. If a meritocracy is a system under which people are rewarded, promoted, etc according to their “merit”, rewarding or promoting (etc) people on grounds other than their merit is incompatible with this. Let us call this kind of equality of opportunity “immediate equality of opportunity”. We can helpfully think of it as the kind of equality of opportunity people should experience when in the interview room (or whatever): the expectation that only their merit at that point, and no other non-relevant factors, will be considered.

But there is another kind of equality of opportunity, and it is perhaps much more important. It is also the kind with which Laws’ essay – and most thinking on the matter generally – is predominantly preoccupied. We can see what this kind of equality of opportunity is like by thinking about people before they get into the interview room, so to speak.

Imagine two people, Janyce and Humphrey. Janyce is born to a black single mother in East London, attends a failing comprehensive school where lessons are frequently disrupted and teacher turnover high, and lives on an estate where most people are unemployed and drug abuse is rife. Humphrey on the other hand is born into a stable two-parent white household in Surrey, attends private school, receives tennis and piano lessons, progresses to Oxford and makes many contacts there.

If meritocracy only considers “equality of opportunity in the immediate sense”, then if Janice and Humphrey both apply for the same job, all that they need be guaranteed is that only their “merit” by considered, not non-relevant factors such as gender, race or sexuality.

Of course, it should be pretty obvious that something has gone wrong here. Do we not wish to say that meritocracy, if it is to be such, requires more than “immediate” equality of opportunity? Do we not wish to see that each person should have an equal chance and likelihood of acquiring merit? That is, do we not wish to say that for a meritocracy to be truly a meritocracy, all must have the same chance of acquiring, developing and demonstrating the merit required to get the best jobs, etc? In the case of Janyce and Humphrey, this has clearly not been the case. For after all, if Janyce had been given all the opportunities Humphrey received, perhaps she would have demonstrated even more merit than him at the interview stage (and perhaps it is now worth recalling that given how unequal their backgrounds are, the chances of them even being interviewed for the same job are highly unlikely).

It seems that what we want to say is that meritocracy requires not just equality of opportunity in the “immediate” sense, but the equality of opportunity of acquiring merit, over a course of time, so that people are not hampered by inequalities in educational, social and situational backgrounds, which if left as they are might prevent them from developing their full potential. I take it this is what David Laws is referring to when he says that “Britain has become increasingly meritocratic, but people’s chances of acquiring ‘merit’ appear as unequal as ever.”

Yet we must notice something at this point: ‘meritocracy’ has suddenly morphed from a seemingly simple and obviously desirable politico-economic social setup into something wholly more complex. When “meritocracy” simply meant “picking the people with the most merit”, all that was really required was “immediate” equality of opportunity; not excluding people on the basis of irrelevant factors. Yet if we want to demand that meritocracy not only consider people’s merit in the here and now, but address – as Laws puts it – “people’s chances of acquiring ‘merit’”, then things are far more complicated. What we are asking is not only that people are considered and rewarded only on their merits, but that people are equally able to acquire merit.

At this stage it is helpful to return to the schematic argument laid out above, focusing on premises 3) and 4):

3.    Britain at present has aspirations to be a meritocratic society and is becoming more so in some respects. However the level of equality of opportunity in Britain at present is below that required for genuine meritocracy.

4.     Therefore the primary consideration for modern Britain is to improve levels of equality of opportunity, thus bringing about genuine meritocracy (which is the most desirable form of society).

Now these arguments at first glance seem to address fairly well our concerns. They imply that we need to address equality of opportunity to acquire merit. Yet it is here that my first major criticism of Laws’ essay becomes relevant: that if we consider Laws’ proposals for addressing (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit they are woefully inadequate to deal with the task in hand.

Laws’ proposals come under 5 headings, which are:

  • Public Expenditure
  • Welfare Reform
  • Education
  • Pensions
  • Taxation

Before addressing Laws’ proposals, however, it is worth briefly glimpsing the enormous task at hand if one is serious about achieving equality of opportunity to acquire merit. Ensuring that our fictional but realistic characters Janyce and Humphrey have equality of opportunity to acquire merit will mean addressing the very fact Janyce is poor, as well as the fact the she and thousands like her not only attend failing schools, but come from social backgrounds with extremely low expectations and aspirations. It is likely that dealing with these issues will require spending a lot of money. And furthermore, whilst overhauling a failing school system is extremely expensive, it can only do so much.

As Dr Adam Swift of Oxford University has frequently pointed out both in his published material and in his spoken lectures, one of the key determining factors regarding whether a child is academically successful (and thereby likely to be financially successful) appears to be whether their parents read to them as a child. On the one hand this is a question of money: parents with money to spare are more likely to spend it on books to read to their children. But it’s about more than just money – after all library membership is free. There is a question of attitudes and ethos here; plenty of poor people read to their children, and lots of middle class parents don’t read to theirs. But as a general rule, people who were read to as children are more likely to read to their children in turn. If being read to as a child increases one’s chances of being financially successful, then those who are financially successful are likely to be those who are more likely to read to their children – and so the cycle of financial success is continued. If your parents were read to as children they are likely to be financially successful, and are likely to read to you in turn, making you more likely to be financially successful – but if not, then not.

So we begin to see that the problem of achieving equality of opportunity to acquire merit is certainly about more than just money; it is also about social and family factors, the expectations of peers and other less-tangible determinants of future success. However it is likely that throwing money at these problems will certainly help: if Janyce’s single mother hadn’t needed to work 60 hours a week at Tesco’s earning minimum wage to keep the wolves from the door, perhaps she would be more inclined to read to Janice.

With those considerations noted, let us however put them slightly to one side. The fact is, money helps increase equality of opportunity of acquiring merit. If schools are better funded, with class-sizes reduced, then children will do better at them. If council estates receive investment, not just in visual infrastructure, but in programmes which can provide youngsters not only with constructive ways to pass their free time (bearing in mind that many of them won’t be able to afford to undertake the weekend activities their middleclass counterparts will) but also with role models of success they can aspire to emulate, this again will help. The rub is, however, that these things are expensive. And that is my main problem with Laws’ proposals: he is not willing to accept how expensive it genuinely is to address (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit.


Disclaimer: unfortunately all I can offer here is speculation. I don’t have the empirical date to prove my argument, which I concede is a weakness in my position.

Now, to explore Laws proposals in a little more depth:

Public Expenditure

Laws boldly writes that “public spending choices should be assessed specifically against a government aim of reducing inequality”. This sounds very noble, but it doesn’t in the end amount to much. In fact, it is just the correlate of Laws’ desire to address (in)equality of  opportunity to acquire merit without raising taxation – something which I will focus on in due course.

Laws’ proposals around public expenditure do little to actually address how he will increase equality of opportunity to acquire merit. Rather, he simply suggests ways in which efficiency savings could be made by, for example, capping growths in NHS spending, or reducing expenditure on “hidden” unemployment in the form of incapacity benefits.

The problem is that not only does Laws decline to tell us how these efficiency savings would be focused towards reducing (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit, it also seems fantastically unlikely that they would generate the kinds of sums required. Overhauling a failing schools system, or investing in the creation of worthwhile jobs for people at the bottom end of the scale which in turn foster aspiration and a desire to achieve, is incredibly expensive. Cutting “red tape” – even a lot of it – is unlikely to free up enough cash to achieve anything like the measures required. But more on that in a due course.

Welfare Reform

Laws’ proposals for welfare reform are difficult to reconcile with any genuine desire to address (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit. They focus on getting people on incapacity benefit into work, better policing of the benefits system, and new expectation that lone parents will work. This kind of rhetoric is appealing to a right-wing electoral base: it shouts of getting tough on “scroungers”. But it’s hardly likely to achieve equality of opportunity to acquire merit. Pushing people off benefits generally means pushing them into menial, low-skilled jobs with little in the way of career prospects, coupled with poor pay. Perhaps it is better for economic productivity if people work rather than claim benefits (indeed that is almost certainly true). But it won’t address (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit, or (in)equality per se for that matter. Children growing up in families and communities where people work in low-skilled, low-payed, low-aspiration jobs with no opportunity for improvement will be sent the message that such occupations are all that exist in life. Again, it is arguably (indeed, almost certainly) better for overall economic productivity if children grow up to work shelf-stacking in Tescos rather than claiming dole – but these sorts of proposals simply do not touch the question of improving people’s opportunities to acquire merit, and in turn the issue of addressing inequality.

What may be going on here is that Laws is confusing equality of opportunity with equality per se. Indeed, Laws makes no attempt to clearly distinguish the two at any point in his essay, and the result is that sometimes his reasoning appears confused or his conclusions ambiguous between the two kinds of inequality

Pension Reform

Laws’ proposals here are most definitely focused on (in)equality per se rather than (in)equality of opportunity (to acquire merit). While what he has to say is on the surface welcome – namely, pensioners need to be better looked after by society – it is in fact difficult to reconcile with what he says about taxation. However I will address this in my second general criticism of Laws, below.

Education

Laws says some grand sounding things about education: it is “the engine that powers social mobility”, and “should be the route out of cycles of deprivation and inequality”. He also seems right when he says that “Good education depends on two principal factors: adequate resources and strong school leadership”.

There are four problems with Laws’ proposals, however. The first is that some of his proposals sound good on paper, but how he intends to fund them is an altogether more difficult question. Laws talks about targeting the 15% of most deprived children with “Pupil Premiums”, which will cost an estimated £2.5 billion. He then talks of a further £5billion dedicated to helping disadvantaged schools to provide one-on-one tuition, Saturday classes, smaller class sizes, etc. Again, on paper, these things sound good – but that is a lot of money (especially in a recession). Laws seems to think it can all be funded through efficiency savings, because he specifically doesn’t advocate tax rises. It is hard to believe this kind of money can be found simply through cutting red tape.

That first problem becomes more acute when it is remembered that failing schools won’t be turned around simply be offering a few one-on-one classes or Saturday school (will the kids at failing schools really choose to come in on a Saturday, for a start?) Laws’ proposals actually appear incredibly modest, faced with the task of really turning around not just schools at the absolute bottom of the pile (and it is doubtful Laws’ proposals on those sorts of sums could even achieve that), but average comprehensives with mediocre results too. After all, if genuine equality of opportunity to acquire merit is the goal, it is hardly likely to be achieved given the levels of disparity currently witnessed between the attainment of children educated in the independent sector and those educated in the not-failing but not-excelling state sector. Or does Laws only care about those at the very bottom? Maybe he does, and maybe he is justified in doing so – but he needs to say why.

Which leads to a third point: if Laws is serious about equality of opportunity to acquire merit, surely the question of ending private education needs to be raised. There seems a strong prima facie case for arguing that a good way of achieving greater levels of equality of opportunity to acquire merit between our fictional Janyce and Humphrey is not just to provide better state education for Janice, but to end the state of affairs whereby Humphrey’s parents can pay for him to be educated to a standard Janyce’s single mother could never achieve. The playing field is manifestly uneven when the children of the wealthy are bought better educations. Anybody who is serious about levelling the playing field must provide very good reasons as to why a society genuinely committed to equality of opportunity in the name of meritocracy can continue to condone private education.

The fourth problem relates to Laws’ sentiment that “it is a distinctly 20th Century assumption that the state deserves to have a monopoly of educational provision”, under which he introduces some suggestions that non-fee-paying schools receive greater involvement from the private sector. This appears to be Laws’ solution for how to improve schools without incurring enormous costs, which efficiency savings alone could never cover. Personally I am deeply sceptical about the involvement of non-state bodies in state-provided education – but here is not the place to go into that tangled debate. I merely flag it as a not-uncontroversial aspect of Laws’ proposals.

Taxation

Taxation is, as I have hinted above, the Achilles heel of Laws’ proposals.

Partly Laws focuses on how to reduce the tax burden on the poorest in society. Here his concern is equality per se not equality of opportunity. Hence he talks of reforming the council tax system which is fantastically regressive and hurts some of the poorest in society. On the one hand I welcome these sorts of proposals – but I will nonetheless in my second general criticism of Laws attempt to show how the intellectual grounding and commitment to meritocracy that his thinking exhibits prevents gets him in some tangles about taxation and the promotion of meritocracy – and whether meritocracy is even a wholly desirable system.

The main problem with Laws’ proposals on taxation that I wish to focus on for now is that they just don’t offer enough. Although Laws is keen to, for example, raise the personal tax allowance so that the poorest in society receive meaningful tax relief, or to change pensions tax relief to end the current subsidising of the rich, these measures again tackles only the issue of (in)equality per se, not (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit.

In order to tackle (in)equality of opportunity to acquire merit, what is required is concerted state action to directly aid those people who lack the opportunity to acquire merit. As written above, that will require enormous amounts of money – the kinds of sums which will not be found through efficiency savings alone. What is required are higher rates of progressive taxation, with the aim of redistributing the revenue to society’s poorest with the aim of improving equality of opportunity to acquire merit.

Yet Laws is specifically opposed to increasing the tax burden, even for the wealthiest in society. He is keen to reduce the tax burned on the poorest in society (which seems in itself desirable), yet only to pay for it with efficiency savings and assessment reforms. Yet the money required to create genuine equality of opportunity to acquire merit in this country is, I contest, likely to be available only through increasing the tax burden of the wealthy.

There are, I think, two reasons Laws is resistant to advocating this measure. The first is that his party, the Liberal Democrats, recently dropped their commitment to increased progressive taxation (namely, 50% income tax on those earning over £100,000 a year) when Nick Clegg shifted the party to a right-wing low-tax focus perhaps designed to emulate Cameron’s resurgent Tories. Laws may therefore be simply working within the constraints of the party line.

The second, however, is I believe more fundamental. It relates to the unquestioned belief that meritocratic systems and societies are essentially desirable, and that measures which temper their workings are to be rejected. As it happens, this has been the mainstream thinking on meritocracies for quite some time, and which reached its apotheosis with the rise of figures like Clinton and Blair who gave wholesale endorsement to right-wing politico-economic thinking. It is to this fundamental problem which I will in a moment turn to, as my second general criticism of Laws’ essay.

Before I do so, let me recap my first general criticism of Laws’ essay: meritocracy – or at any rate, desirable meritocracy – requires not just equality of opportunity in the immediate sense, but also equality of opportunity to acquire merit. Yet Laws’ proposals for improving equality of opportunity to acquire merit are inadequate, principally because he is not willing to fund the necessarily far-reaching measures which would be required, because that would entail increasing levels of progressive taxation. Laws is committed only to reducing the burden of tax on the poorest and making efficiency savings; this might help reduce inequality per se to some extent, but will be inadequate to genuinely address the issue of inequality of opportunity to acquire merit. Thus even within a framework accepting meritocracy as a desirable politico-economic system, Laws proposals are inadequate to address his own stated problem: “that Britain has become increasingly meritocratic, but people’s chances of acquiring ‘merit’ appear as unequal as ever”.

I now turn to my second general criticism of Laws, which is in fact a general criticism of all the vast majority of mainstream thinking on meritocracy. Namely, the assumption that meritocracy is unambiguously a good thing. My contention is that it is not.

To see why, it is worth returning to the original source of the word “meritocracy”. Few people today are aware that the word “meritocracy” was originally coined to describe a nightmarish dystopia. Certainly, David Laws shows no awareness of this in his essay.  But when Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958, the society he depicted was not one he celebrated.  For young, meritocracy was a system under which he saw those at the top absolving themselves of any bonds of responsibility – or even empathy – to those at the bottom. The thinking behind Young’s vision was powerful and straightforward: under a meritocracy, those at the bottom must be at the bottom because they lack ‘merit’ (however defined). In other words, they deserve to be at the bottom. It is a short step for those at the top to conclude that they owe nothing to those who are poor and at the bottom. Consequently, those at the bottom of the social pile are abandoned by those at the top.

Young was alarmed by the prospect of this sort of society – and I believe he was right to be. The message we should learn from Young’s negative evaluation of meritocracy is as follows. Inequality is something we should care about even if the people at the bottom end of the scale deserve to be at the bottom end of the scale. A society which takes the vindictive and retributionist view that if you are poor you deserve to be poor, and in turn do not deserve help, is a dystopia, therefore not a political society progressive liberals should aim for. (I must be careful here: for sure, meritocracy is a more desirable system than plutocracy, aristocracy or nepotism – but nonetheless, just because it is better than what has come before, that doesn’t mean it is unambiguously good and desirable).

Laws might reply that he wishes to increase what I have called “equality of opportunity to acquire merit”, ensuring that nobody ends up at the bottom of society’s pile “unfairly” because they lacked opportunity to acquire merit. But this misses the point entirely.

Firstly, and to espouse an unashamedly socialist sentiment, we may want to say that even if there was complete equality of opportunity to acquire merit (which in the UK there manifestly is not), there would still be something wrong with a society which permitted gross levels of inequality, even if that inequality were the direct result of meritocratic selection when there was total equality of opportunity to acquire merit. That is, there is a thought here that inequality is bad in itself, no matter how it arises, and that the badness increase as the level of inequality increases (leading to the conclusion that modern British levels of inequality exhibit considerable levels of badness, so to speak). Consequently there is a responsibility incumbent on the “haves” to not abandon the “have-nots”, even if they deserve to be have-nots due to a lack of merit.

That sentiment will be ill-received by those on the right (especially) who generally endorse the idea of personal responsibility for one’s social situation. If there was complete equality of opportunity to acquire merit, they might reply, then who could have a problem with saying that people at the bottom deserve to be at the bottom?

The problem is two fold. Firstly, one may well wish to advocate a place for empathy in politics, such that we strive to help people at the bottom of the pile simply because they are at the bottom of the pile, no matter why or how they got there. That sentiment will be viewed with hostility by the right. The second problem, to reinforce the first as well as what I have said previously, is to point out that complete equality of opportunity to acquire merit is an impossibility. The brute fact of the matter is that some people will be born stupider, less adept, slower or just plain more unlucky than others. It is a fact of human existence that we are not all uniform. No matter how much money the state chucks at the problem of increasing access of opportunity to acquire merit, some people will, by simple virtue of who they are, always acquire less merit than some other people. And here lies the important point: that some people will inevitably acquire less merit than other people is in many cases no fault of their own; it is an arbitrary fact of their being born stupider, slower or less lucky than others around them and something which

Now, we may – and I stress, may – be happy with a society which confines those who have less merit, or ability to acquire merit, to the lower echelons of society in terms of pay, employability and prospects for improvement. Yet there can be no justification for abandoning these people at the bottom of the social pile on the grounds that they deserve to be there. The fact is, even in an “ideal” meritocracy with the most perfect equality of opportunity to acquire merit possible, people would still end up at the bottom of the pile through no fault of their own.

Add to this the (admittedly far more left-wing than Laws’ is likely to endorse) thought that even if people “deserve” to be at the bottom of the social pile, there is a responsibility incumbent upon those at the top of the pile to help them, and you have a serious and strong critique of meritocracy.

To repeat: meritocracy as it stands is not an unambiguously desirable political system; it encourages the haves to abandon the have-nots, which is morally distasteful both when the have-nots “deserve” to be have-nots, and even more so due to the inevitable fact that even in an “ideal” meritocracy many of the have-nots will in fact not deserve in any meaningful sense to be have-nots . This will be even more the case in the real world where, as Laws concedes, equality of opportunity to acquire merit is woefully short of anything like the levels required to facilitate genuine meritocracy.

Thus meritocracy, if it is to be accepted as a socio-economic political system which treats its citizens with an adequate regard for justice, needs to be tempered with reference to the responsibilities those at the top owe to those at the bottom. In other words, meritocracy needs to be tempered with a large dose of social justice.

As it happens, this leads to some concrete policy differences between those who reject the unquestioned assumption that meritocracy is a good thing, and those like Laws who accept that assumption without questioning it.

The principal difference is in taxation. Those who see that meritocracy is a worrisome thing, because of its implications for abandoning those at the bottom of the pile, are in a position to advocate progressive income taxation which aims to close inequality gaps between rich and the poor. This is very straightforward: having seen that under meritocracy many will end up at the bottom of the pile because of arbitrary factors about themselves they are not responsible for, and correspondingly that many will rise to the top of the pile because they have “merit” due to personal factors they received arbitrarily from the lottery of birth and which happen to be well remunerated by capitalist market-based economies, the state has role in addressing this arbitrarily-generated socio-economic disparity, by redistributing from the wealthy to the poor. Nobody need here be advocating total equality, notice – and Laws is probably right to suggest that any free society will require some levels of inequality. But there is a big difference between the enormous levels of inequality currently witnessed in Britain and the levels which would be countenanced by a society recognising that wealth generated through “merit” rests on the arbitrary allocation of well-remunerated skills through the lottery of birth. (And the arbitrariness of wealth discrepancies and corresponding inequality in this country only increases when we recall that Britain is still a long way from being a meritocracy).

Those who fundamentally endorse meritocracy – or who unquestioningly assume it is a good thing – are not in the same position regarding taxation. If one believes that meritocracy is fundamentally correct – that people are rewarded according to merit – then redistributive taxation is very difficult to countenance. For if the correct socio-economic system is one in which the rich are rich because they have merit and so deserve to be rich – and vice versa for the poor – then how can it be justified to take away the wealth earned by the rich and give it to the poor? After all, the rich deserve to be rich, the poor deserve to be poor, all because of their corresponding levels of merit. Of course, advocates of meritocracy could countenance redistributive taxation which targets wealth (etc) which was not earned meritocratically (e.g. by advocating a 100% inheritance tax, because after all nobody “merits” to be born to wealthy parents and therefore nobody “deserves” to inherit their money). But as for wealth earned meritocratically, those who believe meritocracy is fundamentally a desirable politico-economic system will have great difficulty countenancing redistributive taxation from rich to poor when wealth discrepancies are generated according to “merit”. Yet as argued above, that promotes a society in which the poor are effectively abandoned by the rich.

We are now in a position to make an interesting connection between my two general criticisms of Laws’ essay. To recall, my first criticism was that his measures to promote equality of opportunity to acquire merit are insufficient given the task in hand. My second was that Laws’ unquestioning acceptance of meritocracy as the best kind of society leads to the endorsement of a political and economic system where the rich abandon the poor, and this is justified in terms of merit and desert.

Those two criticisms are quite damning in themselves – though I freely admit the above arguments are in reality only sketches and need a great deal more work to make them rigorous. Yet it is worth noting a thread connecting both criticisms, namely the issue of taxation.

I pointed out whilst expounding my first criticism that Laws is constrained as to what he can do to promote equality of opportunity to acquire merit by his unwillingness to raise the requisite funds via (I suggest, progressive) taxation. In my second criticism I attempted to show why those who unquestioningly endorse meritocracy as a desirable system will be pushed towards a hostility and suspicion of progressive taxation. Indeed, this hostility and suspicion of progressive taxation in the name of meritocracy appears to have underscored a great deal of political thinking in recent years, arguably getting under way in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan, reaching its apotheosis during the 1990s when it was endorses by Blair and Clinton (those supposed figureheads of the left, who accepted the fundamental desirability of meritocracy and correspondingly abandoned commitments to progressive taxation as a cornerstone of social justice).

What seems to emerge is a paradox in Laws’ position: his commitment to meritocracy makes him hostile to progressive taxation, and yet it is progressive taxation which is required to bring about the meritocracy he champions. Add on to that the argument that meritocracy is in any case not a desirable political system, unless modified by an ethic of social responsibility to people at the bottom (even if they deserve to be at the bottom), which we might describe as the promotion of basic social justice with a view to compensating for the moral arbitrariness of the lottery of birth, and a fairly damning critique of Laws’ essay begins to emerge.

To what extent that critique is sustainable, I leave to anybody who has managed to get this far down the post.
sursa:  http://badconscience.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/a-reply-to-david-laws-mp/

Related Posts

Let us talk about
Name and Mail are required
Join the discuss