Why Nick Clegg offers a recycled vision of society


1:20 pm - November 24th 2010

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contribution by Reuben

Last night Nick Clegg gave the annual Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian offices, and in doing so set out his vision of a just society.

In his speech – he sought to present the Liberal Democrats as the “new progressives”, in contrast to the “old progressives” of Labour and the left.

His starting point, that statism does necessarily equate to social progress, is something with which I would agree.

Yet his fundamental approach to creating the Good Society is neither “new” nor “progressive. Fundamentally Clegg argues that meritocracy rather than equality is central to social justice. “Social mobility”, he says, “is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality”. Inequality, meanwhile, merely becomes unjust when it is “fixed; passed on, generation to generation”.

It is perhaps idle to argue about whether such views can be deemed progressive, considering how elastic the term has become. Yet one thing is for certain: his ideas are not new. It is, after all, more than three decades since Margaret Thatcher told us: “The pursuit of equality is itself a mirage. Let our children grow tall, and let some grow taller than others if they have it in them to do so.” To be fair to Clegg he probably believes in greater positive effort to enhance opportunities than Thatcher.

Yet his basic premise – that serious inequality is fine as long as it is ”earned” – is the same. To present this reheated equal-ops Toryism as the politics of “new progressivism” strikes me as either disingenuous or politically ignorant.

Enhancing opportunities and promoting social mobility may, to some, be laudable goals. Yet they are not weapons against poverty and social exclusion, at least from the perspective of society at large.

As Dave Semple put it, in response to Iain Duncan Smith’s suggestion that education rather than money was the best way to tackle poverty, “even if everyone who could work had a degree, we’d simply have the best educated workforce of shop assistants and bus drivers in the world.”

The point is that however mobile a society is, many must, under the present order of things, end up at the bottom of the pile. And as things stand, this means low wages, and a particularly great exposure to the cycles of unemployment that have proved an irreducible feature of free market economies. What is Nick’s agenda for those who, for whatever reason, end up at this station in life? What is his agenda for the millions of 40 or 50 year olds who won’t benefit from the pupil premium? He does not enlighten us on such things.

Clegg also critiques the left’s focus on income inequality on the grounds that that “it pays insufficient attention to the non-financial dimensions of poverty.” “Of course” he says “it is better to have more money, even if only a little more.

But poverty is also about the quality of the local school, access to good health services and the fear of crime.” And it is on these grounds he defends the comprehensive spending review in the face of findings by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that it hit the poor hardest.

Regardless of anything else, such an approach in fact astoundingly illiberal in the real sense of the term. Clegg essentially presents access to public services as interchangeable with cash income, when considering the impact of his and Cameron’s budget, as though the former were a perfect substitute for the latter.

The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to excersise a bit of control over their day to day existence.

Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed.

Nick Clegg, quite clearly, is seeking to fundamentally reposition the Lib Dems some distance away from the party that was formed by an alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats. Yet as long as Cameron remains at the head of the Conservatives, Clegg’s brand of centre-right liberalism will be competing in a very congested market place.

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Reader comments


Why would anyone listen to a word this pathological liar says.

He will change his mind in six months time.

“The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to excersise a bit of control over their day to day existence.”

Excellent, so you agree that we should tax people less and have a smaller state?

………………….

Was that tumbleweed I saw go by?

Falco:

Go study your Bentham before you make yourself look like an idiot.

@McDuff

I presume that you’re referring to the “Greatest Happiness Principle” which, if cash is special in this way, would be more likely to be satisfied.

If you are referring to other aspects of his philosophy or a different Bentham then perhaps you could expand the point and do so with greater civility than evident in your previous comment.

‘Inequality, meanwhile, merely becomes unjust when it is “fixed; passed on, generation to generation”.’

Fair enough. Presumably he’s in favour of a big increase in inheritance tax then?

Excellent, so you agree that we should tax people less and have a smaller state?

Having a smaller state doesn’t necesarily mean poorer people get more benefits. It’s usually in the interests of the richer to have a small state. However, I’d agree with increasing the tax threshold

7. gastro george

Fundamentally Clegg argues that meritocracy rather than equality is central to social justice.

This is just re-hashed Blairism. The problem is that it tends to the obverse. That the rich feel that they are rich because they deserve and are worth it – and sod the rest of us. It also leads us to the deserving and undeserving poor, etc.

I suspect Mr Clegg’s speech has been genuinely misunderstood ? To me it’s simply a component part of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

Here is one definition of a Big Society I copied off the Internet:

“A unified and cohesed challenge to Britain’s failings as a whole”

Regular contributors to LC will know I’m certainly no supporter of this coalition but it can only be fair to give credit where due.

Hopefully Mr Milliband can learn something from Mr Clegg on this point for their policy review ie. a true meritocracy has some sharp edges to it !

@ Sunny

There’s nothing to prevent a small state with high levels of redistribution.

It’s just a personal point of view but I’m less irritated at having high levels of taxation than I am by the uses that money is put to.

This article has missed a vital point that Clegg has made. He has said that simply putting an arbitrary baseline on measuring poverty doesn’t neccessarily work. You could say that people are poor if they earn £50 or less a week, then top up half of those peoples’ income to £51 a week and statistically you have halved poverty. In reality though you haven’t changed anything.

The statist left is very contradictory; on the one hand it abhors consumerism and materialism but it has a big problem with wealth simply because wealthy people can consume more and have more material goods. Surely if you’re anti-consumerist then material possessions are not a good way to measure the worth of a person’s life.

I personally feel it’s vital that we make sure that the rule of law is enacted in what tends to be the poorest estates, so that the decent majority living in those places do not fear gangs and anti-social behaviour, and do not fear that their children will either become victim to them or join them. But if you’re going to have zero tolerance in poor estates like you do in middle class places then you need to provide access to high quality education so as to give kids another avenue in life.

I would advocate a more mutualist society, but to do that you would need a well educated society where the majority of people understood how to run bussinesses and wasn’t afraid of innovation. It would take a lot of hard work to achieve that.

Falco

I’m referring to the fact that the people to whom a little cash makes a lot of difference to individual autonomy, and the people who are taxed a lot (and who seem to agitate more for tax breaks which would affect the top quintile of earners exclusively rather than, say, a lower tax bracket starting at £10K at 10%, which is the kind of “tax relief” that never gets a lot of play) are not overlapping venn diagrams.

I’m also referring to the fact that bad faith arguments such as yours don’t really merit a great deal of civility. If you must interject abject nonsense and force people to explain to you why what you have just said is stupid, then at least have the grace to remember that it is nonsense you just wanted to throw in because you thought it was an “aha, gotcha!” moment rather than a sensible argument.

Fundamentally Clegg argues that meritocracy rather than equality is central to social justice.

Indeed – and like so many others before him doesn’t realise that Michael Young, who coined the word “meritocracy”, intended it to be satire.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/jun/29/comment << article by Michael Young slamming then PM Tony Blair for using "meritocracy", where Young says:
"The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.

Much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely [Tony Blair] has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realising the dangers of what he is advocating.

Plus ça change…

@ McDuff.

My goodness, how stupid of me failing to realise that, despite me not actually writing anything to suggest it, my overriding concern is “tax breaks which would affect the top quintile of earners exclusively”. Truly, I am humbled by your startling ability to see beyond what I merely think, and see what I might think if I were some caricature of a different person altogether.

I do not think that it is bad faith to point out that if cash is a particularly good thing for people to have then measures that provide less state and hence more cash should be welcomed even if they are not typical left wing solutions. Some of the people who would benefit most from this would be the working poor its very odd having a minimum wage and then taxing people earning this amount.

Lastly, given your continued level of charm and the fact that you only make a general utilitarian point, your justifications for you initial comment are very poor indeed.

“The point is that however mobile a society is, many must, under the present order of things, end up at the bottom of the pile. And as things stand, this means low wages, and a particularly great exposure to the cycles of unemployment that have proved an irreducible feature of free market economies. What is Nick’s agenda for those who, for whatever reason, end up at this station in life? What is his agenda for the millions of 40 or 50 year olds who won’t benefit from the pupil premium? He does not enlighten us on such things.”

I would anticipate that his agenda for low-skilled workers over 40 is exactly that of Labour: hope they go away. There is, at present, no way of dealing in a fair fashion with people who have proven incapable of climbing the ladder. They are merely left where they are. I would welcome any alternatives you have to offer, but am willing to bet that either (a) you haven’t thought them through, or (b) you don’t have any.

There is more than one facet of poverty. By focussing on economic poverty we miss the opportunity to address cultural/social/behavioural impoverishment.
It is disingenuous to criticise the desire to have a better educated population. So what if we do have the best educated bus drivers, shop assistants etc in the world …we would all be better off if this was the case.
With education come respect for other people’s ideas, opinions, personal space, property etc …without it we have the world as it is now, and the prospect of even more all-round impoverishment which will improve the world for all of us at most levels.

However its dressed up we’ve had thirty years of the same economic policy, its resulted in huge inequality and a country that’s a bankrupt shithole sliding down every measure of desirable places for the average person to live. When you’ve hammered away at failure for thirty years its usually a good time to try something new but no, just more of the same – punish the poor, reward the rich and limp on to the next crisis. Clegg has acheived a reputation for lying that looks like it’ll surpass that of Blair and at least the latter was so crazed he believed his own bullshit. I fully expect Clegg to stand up at the next election and announce that the party is not the LibDems, its the Bolivian Navy in on manoueveres in the South Atlantic. Meanwhile is it too soon for an enterprising writer to begin compiling an English/Cleggish dictionary where words have totally different meanings to those ordinary people thought they had? It’ll need frequent revision though.

While we still have a class system in this country there will always be inequality. Not to get into s class argument but it is a fact and whilst politicians like to create an illusion of equality they never intend for the masses to attain it.

If all our bus drivers had degrees what wage would it attract? Certainly not what current degree wagers are so we need low skilled low educated workers to keep wages down to be competitive in the Market.

So I guess we are all equal it’s just that some are more equal than others?

Inequality, meanwhile, merely becomes unjust when it is “fixed; passed on, generation to generation”.

Which is why it should be obvious to anyone who is prepared to honestly think about it that a highly unequal society cannot plausibly have adequate social mobility. In such a society, variance in the amount of inherited capital will tend to dwarf variance in talent or application. The latter is more or less fixed, to the extent ‘human nature’ is: some people are up to perhaps 20 times more productive than the norm, a minority can produce little of value. In an unequal society, by definition, wealth varies by at least an order of magnitude more than that. So personal characteristics or effort are just not on the right scale to move someone from bottom to top of the society: only luck can do that.

To get an unequal but mobile society, something needs to be in place to reduce or block the inheritance of wealth.

For example, with fast (say 10% annual) exponential growth or inflation, so the wealth of yesterday’s generation becomes the pocket change of today’s.

Now you could, in theory, have an unequal but mobile society with a 90% or so inheritance tax. To take effect, it would need to cover things not currently considered as monetary transfers from parent to child, like paying for tuition and school fees. In other words, split up the nuclear family into atomic individuals, with all economic transactions between them recorded and taxed.

Or you could send everyone to a state-run compulsory boarding school at age 2.

Either hardly seems liberal: while that word is somewhat vague and contradictory, it is generally not taken to be about a Leninesque effort to remold human nature to fit a preferred economic model.

19. Just Visiting

This is a shock for us in the UK:

“Young people are twice as likely to be living on disability benefits in the UK as they are in other rich countries, says OECD”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/24/young-british-claim-disability-benefits

Falco –

““The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to excersise a bit of control over their day to day existence.”

Excellent, so you agree that we should tax people less and have a smaller state?”

The missing premise in your argument:

1. More cash in people’s pockets makes them more autonomous.
3. Therefore: we should cut taxes to make people more autonomous

…is this:

2. Cutting taxes is a good way to put more cash in people’s pockets

…which, inconveniently, is false for those people who have the least cash in their pockets and who therefore most lack autonomy. Cutting taxes is in fact a very poor way to put money in those people’s pockets, since they may pay little or no tax already but rely on money collected from better-off, more autonomous individuals through the tax system to top up their incomes.

As for raising tax thresholds (Sunny et al.): obviously this measure in isolation tends to promote inequality and increase relative poverty (since it is of least benefit to those households in which the least income tax is paid, i.e. those in which one or more people are pensioners, not earning, or on very low wages). So while it might be a reasonable thing to do if we could take action to raise the incomes of those households at the same time, it’s a thoroughly shitty thing to do at a time when the poorest are being hit with benefit cuts and a VAT increase, driving their incomes down even further. The median net income will be pushed upwards while the net incomes of the poorest don’t just stand still, but get pushed downwards.

This is something that doesn’t get pointed out enough in my view: a lot of the Coalition’s spending cuts (£20bn or so) aren’t being used to reduce the deficit at all, but to cut income tax and corporation tax. The Lib Dems’support for things like the VAT increase and the tuition fees hike looks even less forgivable when you recognize that these things are, in large part, only necessary because they are committed to massive cuts in direct taxation.

G.O. – I don’t think I suggested that cutting taxes would benefit those not paying any tax. They would however, benefit people with a low income but still paying income tax on that amount.

You also missed out the second part of my suggestion, instead of having a very expensive state that provides services, you can give people cash to spend it on what is most valuable to them, (this all resting on the point in the article that cash is particularly valuable). As I pointed out above, there is no necessary connection between size of state and level of redistribution, (except that you cannot provide both decent amounts of cash and expensive services without running out of money).

instead of having a very expensive state that provides services, you can give people cash to spend it on what is most valuable to them,

Ah, yes, the Big Society.

I take it you’ve got the figures somewhere, yes, that show how someone on minimal incomes will be able to take the extra couple of hundred quid they get back via tax breaks and spend it on healthcare, housing and education, right?

I’m all for cutting taxes on the bottom half. But as has been pointed out, you then have to raise them on the top half. Or the top whoever. There’s no point just “cutting taxes” and assuming it all works out.

Taking £100 off someone at the top and giving it to someone at the bottom, or taking £10,000 off someone at the top and using it to build a clinic that the person at the bottom can use, is a good thing. Cutting £100 off the person at the bottom’s taxes and then closing down the clinic because you can’t afford it is certainly not a good thing.

Social Mobility? Oh? I think the Tebbitistas hawked social mobility throughout the land – back in the dark ages – it involved getting on your bike – have we come full cycle? Will somebody please define the concept of ‘The Big Society’ for me please? – it doesn’t seem to mean anything – or perhaps it actually means just that – ‘anything’ ( except the welfare state of course) Why elect Tories and Lib Dems to ‘reform’ our benefits/welfare system when a cheaper and equally caring approach would be made by appointing a firm of accountants? A logical next-step Tory free market move – privatise politics altogether? Be a shareholder not a vote withholder. Mess of potage anyone?

23

“Will somebody please define the concept of ‘The Big Society’ for me please?”

I think a mess of pottage is about as accurate a description as you could have. As a concept it appears to mean all things to all men….or at least all Tory men? If they are honest (yeah…I know, but bear with me….) even most Tories would admit that it is a fairly nebulous or even meaningless catchall, which the leadership can trundle out and chunter about. It seems to go well with copious dollops of motherhood and apple pie.

Of course the other advantage from the Tory standpoint is that if you on’t define it, and even your own party doesn’t really know what it means, it’s harder to attack. I think by now most people have seen it for what it is; a big airy meringue masquerading as something substantial.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why Nick Clegg offers a recycled vision of society http://bit.ly/gvwhFR

  2. Gerri Weyman

    Why Nick Clegg offers a recycled vision of society http://bit.ly/gvwhFR (expand)

  3. Andy Urie

    http://bit.ly/gvwhFR This is worth a read. Is Clegg really committed to making Britain more of a meritocracy?

  4. Lee Hyde

    RT @libcon: Why Nick Clegg offers a recycled vision of society http://bit.ly/gvwhFR

  5. Pucci Dellanno

    RT @libcon: Why Nick Clegg offers a recycled vision of society http://bit.ly/gvwhFR

  6. Bryonny G-H

    RT @libcon: Why Nick Clegg offers a recycled vision of society http://bit.ly/gvwhFR

  7. Do Tories not believe in social mobility any more? | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] coalition partner, Nick Clegg, would likewise insist that a just society lets those of ability rise to the top, regardless of […]





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