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The left needs to make a difference case for fairness


9:52 am - June 27th 2009

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an article by Dan

There has been a lot of discussion of a new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on attitudes towards tackling economic inequality (at Directionless Bones, Left Luggage, Sunder Katwala on CiF, Don Paskini at Liberal Conspiracy, and David Osler). Quoting Alderson at Directionless Bones, one of the key findings of the report is:

People didn’t seem to endorse the idea of ‘equality’ as a general principle as much as they endorsed ‘fairness’.

This is a point that several of the posts linked to above considered, and there has been a feeling that the left needs to find a new way to promote their view of the world to people (which traditionally is based on equality).

I find this interesting because for the last few years I’ve been coming to the view that the case for a left-wing politics should be based rather on the principles of fairness and freedom than on equality. Equality is important and essential, but I think it’s a consequence of fairness and freedom. I’ve argued this in much more detail in an earlier entry on capitalism. Essentially, a very unequal society will, in practice, also be necessarily an unfair one.

The report has caused quite a lot of distress because it showed that people are not against what they term ‘fair inequality’ – but I don’t think the left should be dispairing over this. The report also clearly showed that people think there are substantial levels of unfair inequality, and that this is a bad thing. This suggests to me that most people basically get and agree with the final point of the previous paragraph – high levels of inequality lead to an unfair society.

I suggest then that what the left needs to do is to push this analysis further and address the misconceptions that the JRF report showed that people have. Most people substantially underestimate the level of inequality that actually exists and overestimate the level of social mobility. Changing perceptions of these is difficult, but could make a significant difference.

As a final point, the report appears to be more of a blow to a state-centric form of socialism where equality is considered more important than fairness and freedom, and much less of a blow to an anarchist form of socialism which takes freedom and fairness to be fundamental. This is important and suggests the left should be considering a change of direction towards anarchist conceptions – and thankfully much of the left does, slowly, seem to be doing this (even if they don’t call it anarchism).

In particular, the point about support for ‘fair inequality’ is very interesting with respect to the remuneration mechanism of parecon (which I written a few things about on my blog). Parecon allows for a certain amount of precisely ‘fair inequality’ – that is, inequality that comes from a choice to work harder or at more onerous labour. It is fair because anyone can make that choice (whereas not everyone can choose to be a doctor, banker, etc.).

On the other hand, it absolutely rejects unfair inequality. As such, it seems that many people’s fundamental views of what society should be like resonate more with a pareconish or anarchist conception than a state-centric socialist one.

———–
Dan blogs at The Samovar

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Reader comments


Hmmm…that’s optimistic….

This sounds like “fairness and freedom”, what are Liberal Democrat views…jus saying…

I think/feel the bottom line..which incidentally I started moving from being a socialist to centre-left because you have to look at what society wants and behaves like.

This study-like it or not, has told the left what many on the right and centre have been trying to say for years (I know my sister used to try and drum it in my skull after I’d get disspointed by some lack of turn out at a protest)…so if inherently being left is about caring what society feels/wants…should we not respond to that??

Therefore, isn’t a centre-left way of governing the UK the most pragmatic and fair solution?

I know many of the left dogmatically would rather chew off their feet, then ever become centre left but this isn’t South America..by that I mean that we should look into the types of people and countries that are inherently more left, right or in the middle….

The UK will never be a ‘left’ country….

“the report appears to be more of a blow to a state-centric form of socialism where equality is considered more important than fairness and freedom, and much less of a blow to an anarchist form of socialism which takes freedom and fairness to be fundamental. This is important and suggests the left should be considering a change of direction towards anarchist conceptions.”

No it doesn’t. That people don’t think inequality is wrong, but only unfair inequality simply suggests we should focus on unfair inequality or just on unfairness (if that’s all people fundamentally object to. Freedom and unfreedom are completely separate issues, you can’t just smuggle them in.

Now saying that only unfairness is *really* bad is fine. We can be robust egalitarians who think inequality is only important because it causes bad effects etc. In practise things are a bit muddier and I think leads to an even more direct focus on inequality.

For example, perhaps as you say inequality necessarily equals unfairness and fairness necessarily equals equality. The practical problem is that producing a fair economy is harder than producing an equal one. If you had full state socialism (rather than a market/anarchism), sure you could enforce fair renumeration and so broad equality. In any sort of a marketised/mixed/liberal society that’s impossible. There’s necessarily inequality so necessarily unfairness. You can’t directly tackle the unfairness so if you care about either your only option is to confront the inequality.

NB To me this suggests that the “case” that is needed is one of making the connections between inequality, unfairness, the general good more transparent to the mind. Even refocusing on “fairness” rather than “inequality” avails us nothing if people still think the practical upshot is more money for scroungers, rather than benefits to them [Cf Osler’s post on redistribution]. What we really need is some sort of book explaining “Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” *cough* The Spirit Level (2009) *cough*

3. Shatterface

Work should be rewarded according to effort, skill and social usefulness: it’s obscene how poorly paid carers are, for instance.

But I’d drop the term ‘fair inequality’, straight off: it slides so easily into concepts like ‘the undeserving poor’.

““Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” *cough* The Spirit Level (2009) *cough*”

Ecept that they don’t – the most prosperous country in the world is also the most unequal

I think left wing politics actually is based on the notion of equality above all else. But what I think people don’t understand about that is that the notion of equality outlined by Mill and others is abstract. The idea is that people are of equal moral worth. This is something which in no way implies that everyone is the same or should be treated the same.

Only once we have decided what worth to accord which people (we have – everyone is of the same moral worth) can we possibly conceive of what is fair and what isn’t. Think of something which the left thinks is fair and then look at what it is premised upon. You will almost certainly find that one of the premises is an abstract notion of equal moral worth.

Fairness is then a product of equality and equality is prior to fairness.

http://petespolitics.wordpress.com

“I suggest then that what the left needs to do is to push this analysis further and address the misconceptions that the JRF report showed that people have. Most people substantially underestimate the level of inequality that actually exists and overestimate the level of social mobility. Changing perceptions of these is difficult, but could make a significant difference.”

Brecht rather comes to mind. You know, it’s not our ideas that are wrong, it’s those of the people. So we’d better go and get another people……

“a left-wing politics should be based rather on the principles of fairness and freedom than on equality.”

We have one. It’s called classical liberalism. So all you have to do is free yourselves from the chains of Marx, Gamsci, the odious Webbs and get back to reading Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Hayek and Friedman. No need to invent it, it all already exists.

I think what both works, and what is sellable, is fairness _within_ a class, and some level of constraint on inequality _between_ classes.

One City boy works hard and trades well, and gets a nice bonus. Another works harder and trades better, and perhaps because of being a woman or unsociable or stuck in a regional office, get a smaller one. That’s unfair. Pretty much everyone involved would agree that a more neutral bonus review process was a good thing.

The rich get 80% of the wealth, and another 10% goes to the specialist service industries that keep things that way (i.e. the City ). Consequently, a unit of hard wortk and dedication in a banker finds purchasers at a massively more than the same unit of labour in a nurse. The banker class is vastly more rewarded than the nurse class.

That’s inequality, not unfairness: there is no specific and fixable unfair source of the difference. Perhaps it has historical causes from hundreds of years ago, perhaps it is just the way things are.

Politically it doesn’t even matter, the point is there is a problem that can’t be successfully addressed by a pure localised fairness agenda.

If you want a fair society, you have to keep the foundations roughly level. Then you can smooth the plaster on any one spot, and overall everything works.

8. Planeshift

Matt M, If you’re going to criticise a book, make sure you’ve actually read it, or at least understood what the book actually argues.

Tim W

Nope, I think more social liberalism…

Friedman is an ass, there was nothing fair about his ridiculous system that made him and his friends empirically richer then anyone else on this land..

I equate “equality of opportunity” as being a close correlation to fairness, or at least the necessary foundation for it. It is also key for freedom – there’s no point having the freedom to study medicine, say, if you can’t afford it. That’s not real freedom.

Most people are suspicious of words like “equality” because it sounds like equality of reward, equality of circumstance – this is necessarily unfair and necessarily anti-freedom.

11. Shatterface

‘Equality of oportunity’ isn’t the same as fairness; having the same chance of becoming an investment banker as anyone else would still not justify the obscene difference in the salaries of bankers and those in socially useful jobs.

“Nope, I think more social liberalism…

Friedman is an ass,”

That’s coming dangerously close to arguing that Friedman was not a social liberal. Which would, of course, be insane. He was, after all, one of the driving forces in the abolition of the military draft, he argued for decades that drugs should be, if not legalised, at least decriminalised. Why, the major poverty reducing program in both the UK and the US (rtax credits here, EITC there) was an adaptation (one he supported) or his original idea of a negative income tax.

With that sort of record it would be a very brave or ignorant person who would argue that Friedman was not a social liberal. As, of course, he was also an economic liberal in the real meaning of that word.

“obscene difference in the salaries of bankers and those in socially useful jobs.”

If you don’t think that bankers are socially useful just try living in a society without a banking system…..

Shatterface, I didn’t say opportunity was fairness, I said that equality of opportunity was the foundation of fairness.

One can get tied in knots in all this stuff – what’s fair and what’s not. A lot of it is subjective. If everyone has the same chances (opportunity), they have freedom, their is some semblance of fairness.

There – not their. Aaargh – I hate getting that wrong

Brecht rather comes to mind. You know, it’s not our ideas that are wrong, it’s those of the people. So we’d better go and get another people.

Well, indeed – how silly, to believe that politics is about trying to convince people of things. Presumably the Worstallite Friedmantopia is merely the natural state of man and doesn’t need to be argued for at all.

No need to invent it, it all already exists.

Indeed it does. Tell me, are you familiar with the concept of “Neo-liberal economics”? I believe that, as an ideological framework for existing institutions and mechanisms, it has been quite popular amongst the financial elite that has just tanked the planet’s economy into the toilet yet again. Unless, of course, you believe that Alan Greenspan was overly influenced by Marx and Gramsci.

You know, for a group of people whose policies have just caused the financial markets to blow up like an exploding turd-in-the-box, hurling millions out of work, “economic and social liberals”* are a pretty rowdy bunch. I’d have thought you’d all keep your heads down for a couple of months at least before you started chortling at other people’s ideas.

*I prefer the term “Thatcherites” myself, although it has rather dropped out of common usage recently.

17. Shatterface

Um, remind me – wasn’t Brecht a bit of a Lefty?

And do you really think investment bankers are worth what they are paid?

18. councilhousetory

Perennial problem for the left. Do you free people who are treated equally. Or do you have equal pay and dispense with the free bit. Decisions, decisions.

19. councilhousetory

12

It’s amazing how misunderstood the works of Hayek, Friedman, Mill, Popper, etc, etc, are. Both Hayek and Friedman were arguing for a for of Citizens Income long before anyone on the left cottoned onto the idea. It was Friedman who designed the Chilean pension system, a social experiment with very few equals in terms of scope and success. But then demonisation is a legitimate political tactic.

This chimes with some of what the post argues but I think some of this broader discussion risks being too pessimistic, in missing areas where there is potentially strong public support for egalitarian arguments.

The research identifies four clusters,

Traditional egalitarians 22%. Need-based fairness. Current arrangements are unfair. More support for the bottom.
Traditional free marketeers 20%. Merit-based fairness. Current arrangements are fair (or adjustments should be anti-egalitarian) as top and bottom get what they deserve.
Angry Middle 26% Merit-based fairness. Current arrangements are unfair, because of free-riding at top and bottom. More support for the middle.
Post-ideological liberal 32% Pragmatic. Not hostile to top, though support some redistribution there. Do not hold negative views of poor, nor strongly supportive. Less firmly held opinions.

This seems to me to have the following implications on fairness/equality issues.

1. It seems quite important to step back from recommending specific remedies and to go back to the critique argument about whether Britain is a fair society.
– where the public are is believing that everyone has some chance to get on, but that there are not fair chances to do well, Making that latter point more salient is crucial. There is strong intuitive response to it. How much well is that argued? That argument is winnable. Some media/political discourse (‘stalled social mobility’) has shifted in this direction, even ‘broken society’ to some extent (though it is a segregating, anti-universalism narrative)

2. if you accept an argument that inequalities are merited if there are fair chances, and they reward success fairly, you should have a lot of scope to challenge current arrangements with public support.

– the belief that some inequalities are merited should hardly be a surprise. Given that almost nobody has seriously advocated equality of outcome, we almost all share it to a greater or lesser extent. Traditional egalitarians have often advocated differences between bottom/top or average/top or shop floor/boardroom closer to (in different cases) 10-1 or 20-1 rather than 100-1 or 500-1. Median public opinion seems to be somwhere that around 10:1 to 15:1 being ‘fair’ differentials, though issues of how you got it are as important as “how much”.

– . The clusters show that there should be a lot of support and interest in scrutinising and challenging which rewards at the top are fair. This is largely untapped.
– Being clear that some high rewards are merited could be useful in looking both at which are merited, and at the scale of high rewards that are merited.
– Would more focus on the deserving/undeserving rich help?
– It would be difficult to oppose scrutiny and transparency measures. (a High Pay Commission; employee representation on renumeration committees)

In fact, the right is occupying this space, by arguing against cultural/political elites (BBC, public sector bosses, MPs expenses): it does so using both angry middle and traditional egalitarian arguments (eg Taxpayers Alliance on public sector high pay), perhaps hoping to avoid a debate about economic power/elites.

3. Some good news. It should be quite difficult to sustain majorities for right-wing pro-market and pro-inequality arguments of the type made by Thatcher: eg cuts in top rates to support incentives; reduction/abolition of inheritance taxes; flat tax. These remain v.common in media and public discourse, though the Tory frontbench no longer argues against equality in principle.
– The right seeks to voice ‘angry middle’ arguments to benefit the top. How to disrupt and challenge this is important for egalitarians or centrists: creating cleavages between top and middle could be part of seeking alliances between bottom and middle, as progressive universalism strategies seek to do.

“Um, remind me – wasn’t Brecht a bit of a Lefty? ” Yup, that’s why what he said about the E German government was so amusing.

“And do you really think investment bankers are worth what they are paid?”

That’s a very different question than the one you raised, of whether the provision of banking services has any social value or not. Which, of course, it does, for you cannot have any sort of society above a peasant subsistence one without some form of banking.

Forgive me for my insistence that something which is a necessary precondition of there being a society has social value: wouldn’t want to be too ideological or anything.

@21
It performs a social value, yes.

But still those wages and bonuses are obscene. Period.

23. councilhousetory

22

If it performs a social value in a free society, there is nothing you can do about wages. Period.

24. Matt Munro

“Matt M, If you’re going to criticise a book, make sure you’ve actually read it, or at least understood what the book actually argues.”

Read a book ? Are you having a laugh – I don’t have time to finish the sunday papers

25. Shatterface

Tim, do you think investment banking is more socially valuable than teaching or the medical profession?

Given that Tim was arguing a couple of days ago that people deliberately define the word “homelessness” in order to plunder taxpayers’ resources to keep themselves in bureaucatic sinecures, I’m not sure his opinions approach the rational closely enough to be of interest.

Re: Hayek and their admirers, by the way, I tend to think that if people wish to be as selfish as possible that’s their affair, but when they specifically argue that they don’t have any duty to provide for their fellow human beings, I think their fellow human beings are more than justified in deciding not to take any notice of them

27. Matt Munro

ejh – I’d be intersted to hear your construction of an argument that we DO have a duty to provide for “fellow human beings”

Galbraith on Hayek

INTERVIEWER: In your books you like treat him with a sort of elegant scorn. What did you dislike about his ideas?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Oh, there’s no doubt about it, they were ideas related to the dominant business community and gave substant thought to ignoring the poor, ignoring the unemployed, ignoring the Depression. He was above all that and arguing strenuously for what the establishment, the fortunate, found favorable.

Matt: it’s called “common decency”. Or “do as you would be done by”. Or ·”there but for the grace of God go I”.

30. Matt Munro

OK – so what’s the scope of this duty ? – is it satisfied through buying a big issue ? Paying your taxes ? what shoud be provided, by whom, who decides, and who is deemed to be worthy of it’s receipt ?

31. Hungry Horace

There is no way of independantly determining which jobs are the most valuable to society at large- we need bus drivers, doctors and farmers as well as every other job which people will freely pay money for. If the bankers are up to some kind of jigery pokery then we should stop giving them our money.
The price system doesn`t express the abstract fundamental worth of things – it expresses the demand vs. supply and provides a rather nifty way of balancing out the two.

Well, Matt, that’s what political discussion in a civilised society is all about. But a society that does not look after all its members is not a civilised one, no matter how much wealth it may produce.

it expresses the demand vs. supply and provides a rather nifty way of balancing out the two.

Another way of looking at it is that it depends on a circularity: the worth of things can be determined by the the price system because the price system determines their worth. It’s simplistic, and it may provide a certain intellectual satisfaction to those who like simplicities (and who are comfortable enough for those simplicities to suit them) but it avoids the problem rather than resolving it.

34. Hungry Horace

ejh – do you consider it possible for anyone to be outside of “society”?

The idea of making fairness – and, by connection fair inequality – the basis of social rewards and disributions, is hardly something new.

About 40 years ago, a man called John Rawls wrote a long (and quite boring) book called “A Theory of Justice”. In it he advocated a political system based, roughly, on something he called “Justice as Fairness”.

It’s most striking – and influential – tenet was that inequality was permitted only to the extent that it benefits the worst-off in society. Under-pinning this idea was the realisation that talents and abilities are essentially arbitrary: that Fred was born good at being a banker and Joseph was not is a matter of chance. Therefore it is not *fair* or *just* if Fred goes on to make millions by virtue of being a banker, whilst Joseph scratches out a living as a bin man, the only job his talents enable him to do.

To reveal this essential arbitrariness, Rawls wanted people to select principles of distributive justice from a position of egoistic ignorance; to pick what kind of society they wanted withuot knowing their own talents, abilities or aspirations. He argued it would produce a far, far more equal society than the ones we presently see. I think he was right.

My point?

These ideas about fairness are really nothing new. The most influential political philosopher of the 20th Century spent his lifetime arguing for them.

It would be wise to get clued-up on this literature. The intellectual ground-work has been done for the left…let’s not ignore it, eh?

36. councilhousetory

ejh

If you think Hayek merely represented the dominant interests of the time, you know very little about Hayek and even less of his time.

Gotta love the people who hold up Milton Friedman as some sort of a social liberal. His shock and we tactics in Chile, and how it fucked up the poor, still goes down as one of the stupidest experiments in history. No surprise to find Tim Worstall singing his praises then.

Dan I lke and agree with this post because I think equality is actually a bad word – politically. I much prefer fairness.

Furthermore, I do think its easier to make the case for fairness and tackle absurd levels of renumerations at the top, as Sunder says, then constantly trying to justify high taxes into a massive welfare state.

Also, this point is important:
As a final point, the report appears to be more of a blow to a state-centric form of socialism where equality is considered more important than fairness and freedom, and much less of a blow to an anarchist form of socialism which takes freedom and fairness to be fundamental.

I think the point here is that we should be thinking of restructuring and regulating our economy in such a way that huge amounts of inequality cannot exactly arise. I would find ways to increase competition and decrease monopolistic strength so no one org or person can become too powerful.

The new left seems to be comfortable with allowing massive inequality while basically saying they’ll deal with it through massive re-distribution after. I dont think that works.

So…what would constitute unfair equality then?

If fairness and equality are separable and distinct as you appear to claim (rather than different names for the same thing), then presumably there can be such a thing as unfair equality. I can’t imagine such a thing. Can you?

38 on “unfair equality”

Fairness (and indeed equality) can often mean treating relevant differences differently. (Shaw flippantly said “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same”). It would be unfair equality to imprison two people for a crime if one was in fact innocent. It could be thought unfair equality to only publicly fund prosthetic limbs matching the skin colour of the majority population: the same treatment has a different meaning and effect.

Arguing that fairness and equality are synonymous is probably to privilege a purely or primarily needs-based idea of fairness (which is a valid opinion, but a minority position). The point of this research is that conceptions of “fairness” incorporates and trades-off ideas about need, about merit/desert and about entitlement, and to try to find out how the links work. (Entitlement often has a procedural element – the Duke of Westminster’s heirs may be entitled to inherit property: that may be a good reason to let them keep a good deal of it, but that is hardly on grounds of need or of merit)

Large sections of the public do certainly have a strong sense of ways in which ‘unfair equality’ could undermine principles of reciprocity and fairness (which is tied to the idea of merited inequality) particularly around issues of means-tested benefits so that somebody who saves income may be disqualified from receiving a pension contribution which somebody who had similar resources but did not save any of it would be entitled to.

What you think of the parable of the talents might capture some sense of fairness, need and desert! I wrote a not entirely serious piece about that here when Brown used it in a conference speech
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/26/twosidesofthesamecoin

The British society is far more fair than the American society.

Yet, you find many examples of people born in the ghetto, or in a small town with a single mother by the railroad tracks, rising to become the Secretaries of State, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, or for that matter even Presidents of the United States. This is in a country where almost 90% of the wealth are in the hands of the top 1%.

There are grumblings during each recession but there is not much resentment about the wealthy rather an interest and ambition to get there.

The American society may not be very fair but it does offer more equal opportunities. Even today, a large proportion of the American Freshman attending Ivy League Institutions come from the American public school system. And, working hard and giving it your best shot matters.

How come we have not been able to emulate that in this culture? Why can’t we instill the dream in our young people that if you work hard you can succeed and can reach the top? Why do we always like to bring the top down?

Not everyone has the ability to become President of the US or the CEO of a successful innovative Fortiune 500 company or a neuro surgeon or a footballer, When people have the talent and work hard why should not we let them be paid what their employers’ see fit.

I do agree though that salaries should be within the proportion of 1-15 – max . 1-20. between the top and bottom rung of any organisation. And in the public sector, no one should be paid more than the Prime Minister.

Most people, who are really wealthy, do not do it based on their salaries but based on the worth of their shareholdings — eg Bill Gates, Lakshmi Mittal, Richard Branson to name a few. And that is associated with risk.

What right do we as a society have to say their earnings need to be limited or they can only earn 10 -15 times more than the junior most employees or the poorest section of society. That does not make sense.

We must focus on creating and sustaining equal opportunities and create a culture of achievement. Otherwise, we would end up with a mediocre society where innovatiion is stifled and our best brains get out of here. And our best brains are already running out of the country in science — not a very good sign.

So why do we keep on harping about bringing incomes and earnings down of the top rather than increasing achievement and aspiration?

I think Blair’s concept was misconstrued — and has been repeatedly by some parts of the labour party. GAP does matter but people becoming very successful through hard work should not become something to be worried about rather celebrated.

How can you justify Poly Tonybee or any of the top writers in Guardian or Independent to draw the salaries they draw when their organisations are virtually loss making almost bankrupt organisations?

I don’t see people asking for salaries of top journalists or commentators reduced.

I couldn’t even begin to argue about Friedman….the guy was a sociopath who was pissed his Jewish dad had to leave Eastern Europe and failed in business..

I know Conservatives and the like hate the concept of cognitive issues…but ahhh….hell-O?

Anyway, Friedman has constantly failed in ALL his experiments…the poor or people are not more FREE because of his warped and highly insercure theory!

Juts his mates…

Tim W, for the record, I’m currently reading his book on free marketism….I need to astutely play this prick’s game..so I’m not answering the ‘social liberal’ thing you’ve said…despite what I think..

Sunny:

“As a final point, the report appears to be more of a blow to a state-centric form”

vs

“I think the point here is that we should be thinking of restructuring and regulating our economy in such a way that huge amounts of inequality cannot exactly arise.”

Little bit mutually exclusive there. Do you want to move away from state-centric forms of governance or restructure and regulate the economy to remove huge amounts of inequality?

“Tim, do you think investment banking is more socially valuable than teaching or the medical profession?”

Don’t change the subject like that. People might think you were asking leading questions.

I said that the existence of a banking system was a precondition for civilisation. Yes, you have to have bankers to have teachers or doctors. Please note, I didn’t say “investment ” anything.

Please supply a structure for a society that does not include bankers…..State or private.

“Gotta love the people who hold up Milton Friedman as some sort of a social liberal. His shock and we tactics in Chile, and how it fucked up the poor, still goes down as one of the stupidest experiments in history. No surprise to find Tim Worstall singing his praises then.”

Sunny, please, well, I was going to say go fuck yourself, but that would breach the usual good manners that normally apply here. So I won’t. But I would suggest, very strongly, that you read about what Friedman did or not do in Chile.

I’ll go further than that. You and I, eh, mano a mano. I’ll show that Milton Friedman was a social liberal. You show that he wasn’t. And who wins……well, we’ll both accept, you as one of the rising influentials on the left, me as one of the paleos on the liberal side….we’ll both accept and promote the outcome shall we?

If I win, then you agree to insist, promote, teach, that Uncle Milt was a social liberal. If I lose, then I agree to teach, promote, that he wasn’t. Even insist.

That’s a challenge. One that you, Sunny laddie, don’t have the courage or the knowledge to take up.

Although I wait in hope

Not that you’re being a twat about it or anything with that bit of dick waving, eh Timmeh?

Was out all day, and only just got a chance to read the comments – rather a lot of them so I’ve broken them up into several posts below.

David Moss,

That people don’t think inequality is wrong, but only unfair inequality simply suggests we should focus on unfair inequality or just on unfairness (if that’s all people fundamentally object to. Freedom and unfreedom are completely separate issues, you can’t just smuggle them in.

That’s a fair point, and the explanation is that I originally wrote the article above on my blog referrring back to something I’d written about capitalism and anarchism, and about freedom, fairness and equality. I don’t think freedom is a separate issue from equality and fairness actually, but I’m taking a positive view of freedom (i.e. freedom to do something, not just freedom from restraints). An unequal society, or an unfair society, allows some to do things that aren’t available to others. That’s a form of unfreedom, but also a form of unfairness and inequality. So I don’t think they are separate issues, but I agree that in the short piece above I don’t make the argument for that.

Oops, already started making a mistake, also this in reply to David Moss:

The practical problem is that producing a fair economy is harder than producing an equal one.

That’s true in the short term, but I would argue that in the long term, achieving a stable equal economy means achieving a fair one (and the failure of communism testifies to that). In practice though, tackling inequality is one of the main ways to achieve fairness. I’m absolutely not arguing that the left should say that they’re not interested in equality and inequality, I’m saying that they should argue it from the point of view of acheiving fairness. I agree with you that the point is that they’re all connected, but that not everyone sees that, and in order to be successful we need to promote that way of seeing things.

Pete B,

Only once we have decided what worth to accord which people (we have – everyone is of the same moral worth) can we possibly conceive of what is fair and what isn’t. … Fairness is then a product of equality and equality is prior to fairness.

Well, except the equality we’re talking about is not moral equality, but equality of wealth, power, etc. Yes, you can derive the principle of fairness from that of moral equality, but actually I think it’s better not to. The reason is that the principle of moral equality is logically much stronger than the principle of fairness, and so there is less consensus about it. Also, the term equality is overloaded and confusing, whereas the term fairness is less so.

Tim W,

Brecht rather comes to mind. You know, it’s not our ideas that are wrong, it’s those of the people. So we’d better go and get another people……

As someone else pointed out, in politics you always have to make your case. The way society is today is not natural, it’s the result of hundreds of years of determined effort, mostly by the rich and powerful.

We have one. It’s called classical liberalism. So all you have to do is free yourselves from the chains of Marx, Gamsci, the odious Webbs and get back to reading Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Hayek and Friedman. No need to invent it, it all already exists.

Actually, I think I share a lot of values with Smith, Mill and Hayek (haven’t read any Ricardo or Friedman), and with the liberal right in general. Where I differ is in the analysis of how those values are best served. I don’t believe capitalism and free markets serve them best. This is, as much as anything, an empirical observation: inequality increases rapidly in a capitalist free-market society, and the consequences of this economic inequality are quickly felt in terms of political inequality.

Sunder,

…the public are is believing that everyone has some chance to get on, but that there are not fair chances to do well, Making that latter point more salient is crucial. There is strong intuitive response to it. How much well is that argued? That argument is winnable.

Yes, I think this is very important.

The clusters show that there should be a lot of support and interest in scrutinising and challenging which rewards at the top are fair. This is largely untapped.

I agree, but perhaps I have a different take on this. For me, this is the starting point for a more radical analysis of society. I don’t think there’s any point in talking about whether or not bankers wages are fair or not without questioning the whole capitalist system that makes bankers wages as large as they are. So for example, there would be next to no value in introducing a law that limited bankers wages, and agitating for such a thing would be a total waste of everyone’s time. But, looking at the wages of bankers is a good route towards a better understanding of the way capitalism works, and in particular how perverse remuneration for work is in a capitalist system. What we want to do is to spread the idea that remuneration, in a capitalist system, is not about reasonable rewards for talent, but about totally disproportionate rewards based on bargaining power, social class, etc.

Paul S,

These ideas about fairness are really nothing new. The most influential political philosopher of the 20th Century spent his lifetime arguing for them. It would be wise to get clued-up on this literature. The intellectual ground-work has been done for the left…let’s not ignore it, eh?

I’m not saying these ideas are completely new – in fact they’ve been around for hundreds of years (probably thousands). The point is rather about political strategy, about which thinkers and ideas to promote and which are worth giving up on. Personally, as an anarchist myself, I think the left took a massive wrong turn when Marx gained massive influence on the International Workingmen’s Association back in the 19th century, and that we’re only just beginning to free ourselves from the consequences of that now…

On Rawls in particular, he’s an interesting guy. I don’t think we should get too hung up on him though. For a start, his basic argument has an impossible and meaningless starting point, which means that it’s largely of interest only to academics and people who are comfortable with starting from false and meaningless propositions and seeing where they lead. I like to do that too, but I think most people are more pragmatic than that. Even getting past that, his argument for the difference principle is not entirely convincing (even if we like the conclusion).

Sunny,

I think the point here is that we should be thinking of restructuring and regulating our economy in such a way that huge amounts of inequality cannot exactly arise. I would find ways to increase competition and decrease monopolistic strength so no one org or person can become too powerful. The new left seems to be comfortable with allowing massive inequality while basically saying they’ll deal with it through massive re-distribution after. I dont think that works.

Absolutely agree with this!

Clarice,

So…what would constitute unfair equality then?

I think Sunder’s reply about this is good – any time when you enforce an equality of an outcome it is potentially an unfair equality. That’s something you hear from the right a lot, but it shouldn’t be only their argument. It’s an understandable and justifiable concern, and we should take it on board. That’s why, for example, the citizen’s basic income scheme is better than means tested benefits (as Sunder mentioned).

Falco,

Little bit mutually exclusive there. Do you want to move away from state-centric forms of governance or restructure and regulate the economy to remove huge amounts of inequality?

They’re not mutually exclusive. An economy has to be structured and regulated whatever approach we choose – even the most extreme free-marketeers agree on that. When we talk about the state-centric approach, we mean the attempt to create equality by force by redistribution only, rather than by changing the conditions and structure of the economy.

53. Shatterface

“Tim, do you think investment banking is more socially valuable than teaching or the medical profession?”

‘Don’t change the subject like that. People might think you were asking leading questions.’

I didn’t change the subject, I replied directly to your question.

‘I said that the existence of a banking system was a precondition for civilisation. Yes, you have to have bankers to have teachers or doctors. Please note, I didn’t say “investment ” anything.

‘Please supply a structure for a society that does not include bankers…..State or private.

Please supply a structure for a society which does not include tax inspectors – a job equal to banking in both social importance and level of skill.

They’re a basic requirement for any developed society yet I don’t see the Right arguing for civil servants to be paid on par with the banking ‘industry’ (a term Im using here extremely
loosely).

Banking is just bog-standard clerical work carried out by office drones in flash suits who get to take a large cut of other people’s money despite making nothing themselves.

Heh – Tim, dick-waving on a blog just embarasses you mate. Don’t do that. It’s bad enough I have to deal with your hilarity. A couple of years ago I actually used the phrase ‘social liberal’ and you said there was only one kind of a liberal, when I pointed you to the definition. And now you’re trying to teach me? You sure are funny.

Falco:
Little bit mutually exclusive there. Do you want to move away from state-centric forms of governance or restructure and regulate the economy to remove huge amounts of inequality?

I want our society differently structured then it is now. That means structuring companies differently so they face more competition from each other, shareholders have more power and do unions.

that doesnt restrict freedom in one sense it just re-distributes power institutionally.

I think equality’s a red herring anyway, what’s the point of it? People aren’t equal, effort isn’t equal, ability isn’t equal, worth isn’t equal. Why are we so bothered about equality anyway?

Surely the point is to create a society where people can be fulfilled and happy. This is most likely achieved through freedom, fairness and opportunity. Equality is the sense of equal before the law, equal opportunity is fundamental to this, but I don’t see it as an end in itself.

“This is, as much as anything, an empirical observation: inequality increases rapidly in a capitalist free-market society,”

I think this is an empirical observation which needs to be proven rather than simply stated.

“And now you’re trying to teach me?”

Sure, since you obviously know very little about Friedman might be worth educating you a tad.

Banking is just bog-standard clerical work carried out by office drones in flash suits who get to take a large cut of other people’s money despite making nothing themselves.

Had much experience of the financial sector? Things generally look very easy when you haven’t the faintest idea of what they involve.

58. Denim Justice

Lol, banking as bog-standard clerical work? Do you mean banking as in the people who serve you at banks, or actual investment banking? The latter is a complex field.

59. Matt Munro

“I think equality’s a red herring anyway, what’s the point of it? People aren’t equal, effort isn’t equal, ability isn’t equal, worth isn’t equal. Why are we so bothered about equality anyway?”

I’ve never understood that either – depravity (as in people being deprived of what I consider the basics) depresses me, inequality does not.

I don’t walk around all day bemoning the fact that I’m not as rich as Warren Buffet, nor do I congratulate myself for not being a tramp. Either/both could happen, for most people the odds are neither will. You have to play the hand you are dealt.

On “fairness”, my idea of fair is that whatever hand you are dealt, you can acheive something with it. Governments job is to create the conditions for that to happen, not to “manage” it by socially engineering their particular vision of equality.

On banking it’s not complex. Most people of moderate inteligence could turn £5 into £10 on the stock market. Given £5M they could turn it into £10M. The barrier is acess to capital, not ability (and I’m not exactly uninformed about merchant banking or high finance)

you obviously know very little about Friedman…

I think Does it benefit the Republicans? Then count Friedman in is a fair summary of his schtick, whatever personal hobby horses he rode in on.

He may have opposed their loopier puritan crusades, but when the shit hit the fan personal liberty would have to make way for Republican financial shenanigans every time. See also, Patriot Act: Friedman’s opinion on.

Also see President George W. Bush: Friedman’s entirely superficial disagreements with and Libertarianism: historic movement for reduction of top-rate taxation cunningly disguised as campaign for personal liberty for everyone.

61. Shatterface

Denim Justice: ‘Lol, banking as bog-standard clerical work? Do you mean banking as in the people who serve you at banks, or actual investment banking? The latter is a complex field.’

Tim J: ‘Had much experience of the financial sector? Things generally look very easy when you haven’t the faintest idea of what they involve.’

Had any experience as a carer? Is it 1% as difficult as investment banking? Is each investment banker’s contribution to society a hundred times more than a carer?

These are the levels of inequality we are dealing with.

62. Shatterface

And more to the point of this thread, that’s the level of UNFAIRNESS we are dealing with.

63. Hungry Horace

@62
Hmmmm…. am I the only one here who was taught as a child that “life isn`t fair”?
Perhaps the problem here is the Lefts obsession with money as representative of a persons value to society. In actual fact, as long as the rule of law applies equally and certain basic freedoms are protected money much over some basic limit doesn`t actually make all that much difference.
Does an investment banker have a life 100 times better than a carer?
If not, who cares how much money he has?
And Shatterface, are you suggesting we should pay more for water than we do for gold?
How are you going to ensure that the stuff that people actually want is distributed to them in the right quantities if you do away with the price system?

64. David Moss

Dan:
If you’re taking a positive conception of freedom then I agree, since I think fairness and maximal positive freedom are two sides of the same fundamentally valuable coin. Still, since there isn’t a public consensus on the value of positive freedom, but there is one on fairness it’s that we ought to focus on. (I objected to negative freedom because as a trend I take advances in it/it’s name to be anathema to fairness/equality).
For either of us, unfairness/inequality will mean less positive freedom, but we ought to make the case against it on the grounds of fairness rather than freedom, since it’s uncontroversially valuable.

“in the long term, achieving a stable equal economy means achieving a fair one (and the failure of communism testifies to that).”

Communism (so-called) wasn’t fair or equal, just highly structured inequality.
My point about tackling inequality rather than fairness, even if fairness is all we actually care about was intended along these lines. Fairness is a moral property of society, we make society fairer by (among other things) making it more equal. In that sense greater equality ‘means’ more fairness, but we don’t make society more equal by making it more fair, rather the other way around.
In terms of the connections. I would emphasise that: fairness [and positive freedom] is good, massive inequalities oppose fairness [and freedom]. I think you’d agree, but then I would argue that these conclusions call for robust state-driven interventions in inequality, rather than your leftist anarchism!

“(I objected to negative freedom because as a trend I take advances in it/it’s name to be anathema to fairness/equality).”

Freedom of speech, freedom of association, are both negative freedoms. Are you really against both of those because they are anathema to fairness/equality?

Jeebus.

66. David Moss

Tim:

Note the words “as a trend.” Obviously I’m not proposing opposition to *all* negative freedoms: that would require that everybody literally was totally unable to ever do anything (a rather more problematic conclusion than opposition to freedom of speech).

Also key were the words “advances in it/ *it’s name*.” My point being that negative freedom is predominantly invoked to justify advances in personal liberties at the expense of other goods, e.g. freedom from having one’s property interfered with outweighing literally saving others lives.

(I also stress advances *in the name of* negative liberty rather than negative liberty itself because I’m sceptical about the coherence of the concept per se. Classifying goods in terms of negative liberties, positive liberties or positive goods is essentially arbitrary, so attempting to privilage one “category” over another leads automatically to a permutation problem.)

“Classifying goods in terms of negative liberties, positive liberties or positive goods is essentially arbitrary,”

Nothing arbitrary about it at all. It’s a wonderful example of very clear thinking in fact.
Negative liberties are those that do not have to be provided by someone. They exist when we stop someone from preventing their exercise. You do not enable someone, provide them, with freedom of speech or association, you simply don’t prevent them from having them.

Health care, education, jobs, incomes, “living wages” and all the other positive freedoms actually have to be provided by someone, somehow.

Can’t see anything “arbitrary” in that distinction at all.

68. David Moss

It’s arbitrary because any example of one can be re-expressed in the form of the other.
Liberty is a single discrete concept, talk of negative and positive liberties are more useful for describing what conception of liberty you find valuable than for identifying particular positive or negative liberties.

A freedom of any sort can be expressed formally as freedom of some-one from some constraint to do something. (This you’ll note requires reference to both positive and negative elements of freedom.) The distinction is arbitrary because if TW because of X is unable to Y you can just as well express this in terms of a constraint or a mere absence of capability.

To turn to your personal categories though. For one thing, these aren’t isomorphic with the negative/positive categories. Secondly, your own categories are arbitrary in precisely the same way as the above positive/negative ones. Whether something depends on provision by some-one else isn’t an essential category of the universe, it’s true only *under some description.* An income could be called reliant on some-one else buying your wares/keeping his distance/setting up policing… or as dependent purely on your own labour and no-one else depending on what elements of dependence/independence you want to stress. All social actions will always be dependent/independent of positive/negative action depending on what your pragmatic interests are in offering a particular description.

But getting down to the root of your proposal and leaving aside any problems of coherence, whether something “has to be provided by someone” is arbitrary anyway in a quite different way: it simply doesn’t matter. Obviously I can’t guess at what the supposed importance of the distinction is though, so I’ll leave it to you to specify why it matters that “freedom of association” doesn’t need provision but healthcare or life does.

“I want our society differently structured then it is now. That means structuring companies differently so they face more competition from each other, shareholders have more power and do unions.

that doesnt restrict freedom in one sense it just re-distributes power institutionally.”

You stretch the language beyond newspeak to say that your plan would not restrict freedom. To acomplish your aims you would require massive state interference, to maintain that situation you would have to maintain that powerful state.

You can have redistribution of power and a massive state, (leaving aside that most of the power would end up vested in that state), or you can move away from state centric governance. You cannot have both and given that you are not utterly blind, you must know it.

“But getting down to the root of your proposal and leaving aside any problems of coherence, whether something “has to be provided by someone” is arbitrary anyway in a quite different way: it simply doesn’t matter. Obviously I can’t guess at what the supposed importance of the distinction is though, so I’ll leave it to you to specify why it matters that “freedom of association” doesn’t need provision but healthcare or life does.”

Because stopping people from denying people a freedom like speech is a damn sight easier than supplying someone with a freedom that has to be supplied.

Free speech is pretty easy “Congress shall make no laws” and you’re pretty much done. “Everyone has a right to a living income” means you’ve got to have a large tax structure, a large distribution system for getting money to those whose market incomes (for whatever reason) don’t amount to a living income, you’ve got to have a system of repression to deal with those who won’t contribute their “fair share” of the money to be redistributed and so on.

I really don’t understand why you cannot see the distinction.

71. David Moss

“Stopping people from denying people a freedom like speech is a damn sight easier than supplying someone with a freedom that has to be supplied… I really don’t understand why you cannot see the distinction.”

So long as your point is only that social goods that can be achieved by abstaining from passing laws are less difficult to achieve than social goods that require anything more difficult, then I completely accept the distinction. I’m just not convinced that it’s an important one.

It might be better to stop referring to your distinction as ‘negative/positive’ (which has already been used for a totally different distinction), and stop describing the distinction as between ‘things that depend on others and things that don’t’ because that gives the impression that you’re referring to the importance of rights/liberties/demands on others etc. Obviously the distinction between “damned easy” and “needs lots of distribution” won’t do much ideological work for you though.

72. Shatterface

Hungry Horace: ‘Does an investment banker have a life 100 times better than a carer?
If not, who cares how much money he has?’

Well he does, obviously, otherwise he wouldn’t ask for 100 times more than a carer.

If he’s not enjoying the fruits of other peoples’ labour as much as he thinks he should, maybe he’d feel better making 100 carers better off by doubling their wages and enjoying his money vicariously.

Tim W,

This is, as much as anything, an empirical observation: inequality increases rapidly in a capitalist free-market society,

I think this is an empirical observation which needs to be proven rather than simply stated.

Sure, but this thread isn’t the place for that discussion. If we had to argue our positions from nothing every time we’d never get anywhere.

Health care, education, jobs, incomes, “living wages” and all the other positive freedoms actually have to be provided by someone, somehow.

So do armies, police forces, etc. The right to private property has to be enforced by the state. The right to free association is meaningless unless you have the rule of law stopping other groups from disrupting your ability to associate in practice. etc.

Matt Munro,

I don’t walk around all day bemoning the fact that I’m not as rich as Warren Buffet, nor do I congratulate myself for not being a tramp. Either/both could happen, for most people the odds are neither will. You have to play the hand you are dealt.

Yeah but it’s not like there’s just a vast majority who are fine and a few weird exceptions, there’s a huge majority who live on a tiny fraction of what a small but sizable minority live on.

On “fairness”, my idea of fair is that whatever hand you are dealt, you can acheive something with it.

Depends on what the something is, everyone can achieve ‘something’ with the hand they’re dealt, but some can achieve much bigger somethings than others (through family wealth, social class, etc.).

Falco,

I want our society differently structured then it is now. That means structuring companies differently so they face more competition from each other, shareholders have more power and do unions.

You stretch the language beyond newspeak to say that your plan would not restrict freedom. To acomplish your aims you would require massive state interference, to maintain that situation you would have to maintain that powerful state.

No it wouldn’t. For example, take unions – all you have to do to give the unions much power is to lift the restrictions that exist (e.g. the restrictions on general strikes and solidarity strikes).

David Moss,

Still, since there isn’t a public consensus on the value of positive freedom, but there is one on fairness it’s that we ought to focus on.

Seems sensible. I would like to promote (positive) freedom as a value though, I think it’s important.

Communism (so-called) wasn’t fair or equal, just highly structured inequality.

No, but it started more fair and equal than it became – it was an unstable system was the point I was getting at.

In that sense greater equality ‘means’ more fairness, but we don’t make society more equal by making it more fair, rather the other way around.

But there is, as discussed earlier, ‘unfair equality’.

In terms of the connections. I would emphasise that: fairness [and positive freedom] is good, massive inequalities oppose fairness [and freedom]. I think you’d agree, but then I would argue that these conclusions call for robust state-driven interventions in inequality, rather than your leftist anarchism!

I find the anarchist critique of the state very convincing – it’s an entity that is predisposed by its structure to serve elite interests of one sort or another. That’s what happens when power is exercised from above. Based on this sort of view, anarchists correctly predicted in the 19th century both the failure of Russian communism and that the parliamentary route to socialism would fail to win lasting socialist goals. The welfare state and the NHS appear to be exceptions, but it’s not clear to me that these would have been achieved without the world wars and the revolutionary potential engendered by them. But I’m willing to be convinced I’m wrong about that.

75. Hungry Horace

Yes, that`s true. I`m guessing that the banker wants more money because he likes having more money than other people. It`s not really about the stuff he can buy, but the feeling he gets from the knowledge of being richer.
So the question here is whether, given the advantages of maintaining some kind of price system with regards to the labour market, the happiness created by removing the carers sense of inferiority (do most carers actually care how much money a banker has?) will outweigh the misery created by removing the bankers sense of superiority.
Given that the people most likely to buy into the importance of money are those who have worked hard to become rich, I say leave them to it.
It`s a game. You can choose if you`re playing or not. While winning is fun (including cheating), being let to win spoils the whole thing.

Dan:

“No it wouldn’t. For example, take unions – all you have to do to give the unions much power is to lift the restrictions that exist (e.g. the restrictions on general strikes and solidarity strikes).”

Quite apart from the advisability of such an action, (for which read utter idiocy), how are you going to maintain the control you obviously desire over the companies that the union members work at? Would that be by law? With the power of a large state?

Your aim is to change the relationships in the economy, to do that you will need considerable power and the only place that becomes available is the state. The more power you require, (and you certainly have ambitions that require great power to satisfy), the larger the state you need.

You can have your socially aimed change or you can have a small state, to believe you can have both is, at best, self deceiving.

62. So that’s a no then…

Falco, you’re not arguing your case, you’re just repeating your assertions. Sunny gave three examples of the economic relationships he wanted to change: more competition; more shareholder power; more union power. As I already said, more union power would be achieved by having less state interference. Policing competition would require an active effort, but then it’s a fundamental basis of free market economics anyway – the free market doesn’t work without competition. So do you want to argue that giving shareholders more power would require “massive state interference”? Go for it… (although I might leave Sunny to respond since I’m not sure what he wants to achieve by more shareholder power).

Dan:

I have had to repeat because you have not dealt with the argument, you have simply ignored it.

Sunny plans will not cause more competition but less by restricting the sorts of companies that can form so that they are “fairer”. More regulation of the type of company that you can form = more state interference = bigger state.

As for the shareholders, you cannot really give them any more power because they already have it. They may lack the will to exercise it but it is theirs none the less.

“Policing competition would require an active effort”

Nothing more than a trades description act and a monopolies commission are required for policing competition. To have greater competition, cut back on all other areas of regulation. If you’re for that, then I very much agree.

Re the unions, as I pointed out above, you want to slant the playing field in their favour. Leaving aside the damage that will do to the economy, (including to the union members eventually), you still want to regulate the companies. Or are you arguing for a free for all? Secondary strike action allowed but no job protection while on strike? Dismissal for becoming a union steward?

A free market with a few monopolies is the ground state. If you want to change it then you have to intefere in the economy, that requires a state. To cause the changes you and Sunny have suggested, (ie. f’ing big changes), requires a large state. There is no other possible mechanism.

If you dissagree with the above then by all means describe how you will effect these changes without using the state. If you manage it then, verily, I shall bow down to your towering intellect.

Falco, so in fact you agree with Sunny’s point (the one he actually made rather than the one you might be imagining he made) that you can have more competition, more shareholder power and more union power without increasing the size of the state. What you’re really saying is that you think doing that wouldn’t be a good idea and that you’d rather do something else.

“A free market with a few monopolies is the ground state.”

Wild ideological assertion, unsupported by evidence, in contradiction with the historical development of capitalism. Also totally irrelevant to the discussion on this thread, which is about what the left’s strategy ought to be, not about what the right want.

I’m awfully sorry if you feel that in a thread of 80 posts I have deviated from your pet subject. I’m not going to go over it again but do try reading what I’ve written rather than viewing everything through your curiously myopic filters.


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