What should liberalism say about equality?

10:07 am - May 8th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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A New Hampshire man won a Supreme Court case in the 1970s, successfully challenging the obligation to display the state motto ‘Live Free or Die’ on his car numberplate. Faced with the choice of death or a life in servitude, he would rather live, believing on both religious and political grounds that life is more precious than liberty.

Even if Richard Reeves and Phil Collins would be disappointed by his choice, they would strongly promote his autonomy to make it.

And their own new Demos pamphlet ‘The Liberal Republic’ is a considerable improvement on their own ‘Liberalise or Die‘ injunction to Labour and the left published in a controversial Prospect article a couple of years ago. The article cast a caricatured Fabianism as a ‘poisoned well’ and the source of all of the left’s intellectual difficulties, yet its weakest argument was a purist and strangely anti-pluralist dismissal of the idea that the liberal-left might seek to fuse the insights of liberalism and social democracy.

It is not just that the authors are in less combative mood. Their substantive position now appears to me to be a different, rather deeper and more attractive one. (And I think Sunny Hundal may be rather too quick to suggest it repositions Demos to the centre-right, even if much of the media mood music might suggest that).

Reeves and Collins are making a welcome attempt to resuscitate both the individual and social concerns of the new liberalism of the early 20th century. They now root this liberalising mission in Amartya Sen’s important work on autonomy, and the substantive freedoms and capabilities to choose the good life for ourselves. This has important egalitarian consequences – the scale of which will disappoint many libertarians and should challenge centre-right liberals too. I don’t think their liberalism is in doubt, but I am beginning to suspect that they may secretly remain somewhat social democratic as well.

Theirs is a readable and thought-provoking tract, though it probably tries to cover rather too much ground.

Its account of liberalism is a thoughtful one. Ultimately, the case is often for a ‘gut instinct’ towards liberalism. A much clearer distinction between ends and means offers a greater chance of interrogating how the democratic republican call for a more participatory and less statist politics need not also mean a less egalitarian liberal-left. It is a nuanced account, challenging libertarianism for believing that “the conditions for a self-directed life emerge out of thin air”, and often acknowledging tensions, trade-offs and dilemmas of competing goods, but rarely having sufficient space to explore how liberals might resolve these.

For example, as the authors briefly discuss, it is rather difficult to make substantive use of Mill’s harm principle without pinning down how narrowly or expansively the notion of ‘harm to others’ is to be understood. Reeves has noted previously that a strict application of Mill would insist on seatbelts in back-seats but leave the driver to the windscreen. Yet few of us object to a pragmatic paternalism here because the freedom not to wear a seatbelt is usually a very weak autonomy claim (though a Sikh objection to wearing a motorcycle helmet is something else entirely). So the weight of particular freedoms or restrictions may be important in a liberal autonomy account.

I am somewhat sceptical about whether the liberal state can remain as substantively neutral as they imply in approvingly quoting Terry Eagleton’s idea of the state being like a good publican, keeping its opinions to itself about witchcraft or wrestling. Indeed, they also write that “for choice to be real, there has to be a range of options”. They give enormous weight to literacy – “nothing matters more than not being able to read” – sensibly regarding this as essential to making substantive choices. (By the same token, might liberalism not also legitimate a strong concern with addiction as well as illiteracy?).

What is of most interest is their foundational starting point. An important foundational question for egalitarians is ‘equality of what?’. (And almost all of us believe in equality of something – equality before the law, at least, and usually of fundamental human rights). What remains after this is certainly important to any real political project, but might be considered less fundamental. The question of means as to how to attempt to bring about the desired outcome, and the question of politics as to how to build and sustain a sufficient coalition of support if it is to happen in the real world.

The liberal republican answer to ‘equality of what?’ offers a foundation stone with the potential to coalesce a broad liberal-left, across parties and ideological traditions.

The good life is that which we have the chance to script for ourselves.

The good society is one which spreads that ability to all of us.

The focus on the means of capability has important egalitarian consequences. This broad idea has been expressed as equality of autonomy, of equal life chances, of the fight against fate. It can draw on a range of New Liberal, ethical socialist, social democratic and democratic republican traditions.

The pamphlet’s difficulty on policy is probably in sketching out rather too many policy areas. In effect, this ‘signposts’ the authors’ instincts about the application of a liberal republican politics, but often means just a couple of pages on issues like health, education or climate change. The authors make a virtue of their liberal eclecticism – advocating Tory policy on schools, Labour’s approach to hospitals, LibDem-ish on taxation, and fairly centrist approaches to constitution and climate change. Others, including from a democratic republican perspective, might interrogate those applications of the idea.

Still, the old Fabian enemy can find more than two cheers for the strong focus on the means of capabilty. Crucially, the authors do not lapse (as remains too common on the centre-right) from the claim that money isn’t everything to a blindness about money being rather important: quite the opposite. They write that “the five principal capability deprivations in the UK today are not being able to read, not having enough money, growing up in a poor family, going into care and having poor mental health”.

This leads to a defence of the principle of taxing inherited wealth, and the proposals that the top rate of inheritance tax should not be lower than the new 50% top rate, and that capital gains from property should not be treated differently. (They are less keen on taxing income than assets, though are not necessarily aganst the 50p top rate on pragmatic grounds: Stuart White has noted John Stuart Mill’s interest in redistributive income taxation as an issue of distributional justice). Following Adam Smith in arguing that the means of capability must be considered in relative terms, Reeves and Collins link this to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s evidence about minimum income standards to meaningfully participate in our society. So they favour more generous benefits, combined with greater active conditionality, which is broadly the Scandinavian and Dutch approach.

Their claim is that this is being advocated for different reasons than traditional egalitarianism. This may be a straw man. I am not so sure that greater equality of assets or income has often been asserted as an end in itself. They write too that “quite what would happen to income inequality in the process is not clear. It is also not the point”. I broadly agree that it is not the point. But, empirically, a society which achieved much greater fairness in assets and capability would surely result in an income distribution rather closer to that in Scandinavia than in Britain.

The substantive challenge here to the egalitarian left is to understand and make legitimate distinctions between equality and fairness. If autonomy is the end, then there is little sense in always compensating to level out outcomes resulting from choices legitimately made. However, that also depends not only on the justice of the initial distribution (as libertarians may concede) but also, which is trickier, recognising the intergenerational effects whereby today’s unequal outcomes (even if legitimate) form tomorrow’s stark inequalities of capability and autonomy.

Perhaps less persuasive is the idea – favoured by Blairites and progressive Conservatives – that the gap “which really matters” is that between the bottom and the middle. That may be primarily a political point about the drawbacks of narrow targeting compared to progressive universalism. It is going to be difficult to tap into intuitions about reciprocity or build a sufficient coalition for the capabilities agenda advocated here should the message to those struggling in the middle seems to be that those at the top are out of reach, but that others have much greater priority.

One surprising feature is that the pamphlet is at times rather more cautious, pragmatic and incremental in many areas than the liberal rallying cry might lead readers to anticipate, with schools policy the clearest exception to this. They do not like the paternalistic principle of sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco and yet, with the pragmatic need for income, think it is better that “bads” are taxed than “goods”. This is a democratic republicanism which sensibly gives little or no priority to removing what the authors see as a primarily “ornamental” Monarchy.

The dispersal of power is the big idea. Many Liberal Conspiracy readers would particularly warm to the argument that ‘decentralisaton’ is to think about things the wrong way around. This is to reassert older traditions of subsidiarity and federalism as a bottom-up affair, thought acknowledging the case for national and indeed international action where the scale of the challenge demands it.

There is a good deal of focus on how to achieve this in the public services – the experience of individual budgets in social care is a persuasive one, but there is less likely to be a one size fits all approach to personalisation across different types of public service – but rather less about how to create a political settlement in which such an approach is entrenched.

The authors make a rhetorical claim is that this is really a question of whether we believe that the people are “up to it” or not. This may be a clever political “dividing line” but it is perhaps a somewhat artificial one, and does little to explain how to address the more important challenges for any agenda of devolving power.

When public attitudes are so heavily in favour of equity in the provision of core public services over chosen inequalities, any project of devolution – where being able to choose differently is of course the point – probably depends on much greater clarity about what basic minimum standards of universal citizenship are being guaranteed, and which are open to variation. And the Hansard Society audits of political engagement warn against believing that we can simply exhort a new citizenship to bootstrap itself into existence. That does not mean it should not be attempted, but it does suggest scepticism against suggestions that a thousand flowers will bloom if only the state would get out of the way.

Electoral reform is favoured, but their political agenda seems a somewhat piecemeal one. Perhaps this is just be the British tradition of incremental change, but that is a large part of why the important democratising reforms of New Labour’s first term are now rather overshadowed by more traditional governmental instincts.

Reeves and Collins are happy to let the House of Lords “wither on the vine”, express an anti-pluralist instinct for unicameralism rather more common in the collectivist tradition than the democratic republican one. But this misreads how much the second chamber has much increased in authority and activism since the innovation of life peers half a century ago, and particularly in the last decade after the removal of most heredetaries. There may be a conservative and also an uncomfortable pragmatic utilitarian defence of the status quo – where liberal ends are often achieved by these undemocratic means – but the Lords’ increasing influence makes the question democratic legitimacy, whether by election or other means, can not simply be ducked. Their aims for the Commons are laudable and would improve democratic scrutiny. But the lower house will struggle to do everything itself in a political system where the fusion of executive and legislative functions means that majority confidence in the government of the day remains a trump card.

The pamphlet perhaps opens rather more debates than it settles. And the idea and image of liberal republicanism will doubtless be used instrumentally by politicians across the political spectrum. Some of that may well be more about rhetorical positioning than as substantial commitment. Strikingly too, a great deal of this liberal account directly contradicts the anti-liberal, localist communitarianism of the “Red Toryism”, also housed at Demos. That ‘progressive Conservatives’ are keen to associate themselves with these often diametrically opposed projects (often without seeming to spot the contradictions) adds to the sense that ambiguity is central to the Cameron project of Tory statecraft.

But there are some good tests here about the foundations which a politics of autonomy requires.

And the pamphlet contributes to a broader renaissance of democratic republican thinking which could be particularly important at a moment when those who want to create an effective liberal-left might well fear that the hyphen on which effective progressive alliances depend risks being stretched to breaking point. There are reasons to be wary if a valid critique of New Labour’s illiberal instincts drives a crude anti-statism which either lacks any priority to tackling entrenched disadvantage, or a lack of any effective set of means for doing so.

A liberal-left which is both liberal and egalitarian is a prize worth grasping. And, in the long-run, Demos may yet find too that there is more substantive engagement with how to achieve that vision on the centre-left than on the inchaote liberal right.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

“There is a good deal of focus on how to achieve this in the public services – the experience of individual budgets in social care is a persuasive one”

Don’t agree with this at all. Individualised budgets are interesting and generally a good thing, but have some significant challenges which the demos people don’t seem to be aware of. For a start, you can tell an idea is being overhyped when there are claims which are mutually contradictory, e.g.:

– they say that individualised budgets are cheaper, citing research which shows a 20-40% cost reduction.

– they also want everyone to have access to a broker if they want. But if everyone has access to a broker (and a genuine choice of quality services, as discussed below), you won’t get a 20-40% cost reduction.

It can either be cheaper or better, but it won’t be both.

In addition, individualised budgets mean that if you want a service, but most other people don’t, then the service becomes more expensive or harder to access (e.g. the daycare centre which relies for its income on personalised budgets rather than local authority grants will either have to charge higher fees or open less frequently – hence a worse service for people who want to go there). Similarly, there are problems with capacity – the local theatre group which is really popular might be one which lots more people want to use their individual budgets to pay for, but in fact can’t run any more shows.

And perhaps the biggest problem is that individualised budgets + brokers do absolutely nothing to empower people if the overall funding for a service is totally inadequate. Individual budgets are about how you slice the cake, rather than how big the cake is.

Reeves and Collins would have benefited from half an hour of sitting in with a broker who is advising people with learning disabilities on using the choice based lettings to bid for social housing in London – far from being empowering, this sort of thing can be deeply frustrating and disempowering if people don’t in fact have a genuine choice between well resourced and high quality public services.

I only skimmed the rest of the pamphlet (since this bit was their big idea and they don’t understand how it actually works), but it seems to be more of ‘things which the authors have heard a bit about which fit their prejudices, but haven’t ever seen how they work in practice’.

2. Chris Baldwin

Thing is, liberalism is in power right now. What’s New Labour if not social liberal? It certainly isn’t social democratic – it would have had to undo Thatcherism for that.

3. Conor Foley

Good article

“liberalism is in power right now”


One of the problems with “liberal” as a word is it means so many different things in so many different contexts. It’s possible to claim the government is both liberal and illiberal without necessarily contradicting yourself.

Liberty and equality are separate goods. But they do not, I believe, tend towards mutual exclusivity, nor do they face in opposing directions. I would argue that each is predicated on the other.

Equality without liberty is impossible, in the sense of “freedom from”; if liberty is curtailed, someone must be doing the curtailing, so there is a repressive power relationship, which means some are more powerful than others in order to impose their will, which means no equality.

Liberty without equality is meaningless, in the sense of “freedom to”: if as a poor citizen I have no economic power, there is little value in being free from coercion, as I am a slave to my poverty. In fact, since relative wealth is a construct of our economic system, and if all natural resources are controlled by the wealthy or by the state, and are not legally accessible to me, then in fact there is coercion at play, preventing me from (say) living off the land, as it is trespass or theft.

That is a good point Joshua, though worth noting that even absolutist libertarian theory (such as Robert Nozick’s) requires some sharing of natural resources. We also need to remain absolutely critical of the role of coercive institutions in much of our economy. For example, how a monopolized fiat currency allows the state and its licensed corporations to maintain a privileged position of power within the economic field that disrupts individual resources and income.

8. Christopher

This is all well and good although not a particularly practical guide for the future. It’s hard to find anything wrong with the proposition that power should be exercised at the level where its use affects people’s circumstances most keenly. It continues to offend me that in our society it matters more what a junior civil servant in an office block in Victoria thinks than what someone actually using a health centre or bus service would prefer. If a ‘Liberal Republic’ could address this I would become one of its greatest champions.

The problem with attempting to build such a society is that we are not trusting or generous enough to foster the equality that would allow “a place where people have the freedom to live in the manner of their choosing and the power to determine their own version of the good life” to function fairly. While there is nothing particularly objectionable about Tory free-schools policy, it would undoubtedly become corrupted by our entrenched inequalities (both financial and class based) to favour the affluent. Grammar schools did, comprehensive schools have, church and specialist schools appear to be doing so. Not only as Don say does the Pie not get any bigger, but the choice in how to split the pie will become a weapon in the hands of those most able to use it to further their own interests.

The argument from the left has to be that freedom is a social good, but if it is bought at the price of reduced equality then the cost to our society will undermine its worth.

Don – I am not an expert on social care either. The points you make are good ones (particularly around better/cheaper). As you say, don’t undermine the case for individual budgets in principle but are important tests of what is driving a change. Otherwise we can have progressive rubric as a front for cost-cutting (as was true of ‘care in the community’).

I think Joshua puts the argument well and I think Joshua’s approach is pretty much what I think underpins the liberal egalitarianism approach. Christopher’s point is a similar one.

And that is why I think the pamphlet has the right starting point. Once we have an ‘equality of power and autonomy’ or ‘more equal life chances’ account of what we are trying to achieve, which has a substantive understanding of capability underpinning autonomy, then this is a very useful ‘freedom to’ account which should be able to challenge threats to freedom and autonomy from all sides.

It is also important to unpick the idea that the central left-right argument is between fairness (from the left) and freedom (from the right). There is something in that historically.

But the left can and should claim to have an interrogation of both the substantive nature of freedom being advocated (freedom to), and a pro-freedom concern with the distribution of and expansion freedom. This is what Tawney is going for, I think. ‘A fairer and freer society’.

The right’s objection tends to be that the concern with distribution means unreasonable restraints on freedom. However, by the same token, it is incumbent on the liberal democratic right to argue for its conception of freedom as fairer, which is usually an argument and defence of the legitimacy of merited inequalities.

Once the debate is joined at that point, I personally think that the right needs to concede quite a lot of territory to the liberal centre and centre-left, or vacate its claim to be give a high priority to concerns about equality of opportunity and ‘meritocracy’.

Of course, the right has not always claimed that is its motivation – traditionally, the modern democratic right at the start of the 20th century (Salisbury, etc) began from a simpler defence of privilege, property and order and class interests (for example, in tending to oppose rapid extensions to the franchise, except on occasion tactically), but the post-war right has always staked its claim on fairness grounds too, which means that the debate about capability and autonomy ought to be rather a central one and an important way to interrogate whether the right in practice is supporting the meritocratic principles it advocates or risks slipping back to a less principled defence of entrenched interests.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: What should liberalism say about equality? http://bit.ly/uqJEK

  2. Sunder Katwala

    @oldpolitics Collins in Liberal Republic articulates his own egalitarianism (equality of autonomy) that doesn't http://t.co/aC5vKIrQ

  3. The Old Politics

    @oldpolitics Collins in Liberal Republic articulates his own egalitarianism (equality of autonomy) that doesn't http://t.co/aC5vKIrQ

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