Friday, 29 August 2008


Inequality - it's a thing we all detest - right?
I recently read a review of a book by Polly Toynbee & David Walker 'Unjust Rewards' on this subject. Johann Hari, writing the review, ended his comments by saying that 'no doubt Toynbee [what happened to Walker?] will be showered with right wing abuse for this book.' This is a fairly standard technique of the extreme liberal position, which means that if there is any criticism they don't need to listen to it. I will therefore begin with where I agree with the thrust of Toynbee's & Walker's arguments.

Inequality is a contravention of natural law, of divine law. This is if we assume that we are talking about inequality in the way people are treated, or the opportunities they are given. Even here, of course, we inevitably make distinctions. If somebody is unable to learn how to fly an aeroplane we do not insist that British Airways should give them a job as a pilot. And quite rightly so. What we should be concerned with is finding ways of establishing equal opportunities for all. This would mean that every person who thinks they would like to be an aeroplane pilot has the opportunities to move towards that goal. Nobody should simply be told: You're too old, you're too young, you're from the wrong family, the wrong address etc. etc. Yet even here we have difficulties. If somebody in their seventies decides they want to train to be an aeroplane pilot, is it wrong to refuse them? It might be that their health might not suffice to exercise the role. It might be that the years of flying time they would be able to put in would not justify the expense of training them. Already we can see that equality is not as simple a matter as we might wish it to be.
And we know that to be the case. If we imagine two people, and we give each of them £500,000 and leave them to get on with things, it is quite possible that in ten years time one of them will be doing very well while the other has drunk himself (or herself) to death. If we are concerned about equality of opportunity, we do need to be very clear about exactly what we mean.
Mr Hari presents us with two children on the Clapham bus (thank God, apart from the headline he refrains from calling it an omnibus) One is from a wealthy family, the other from a poor family. The child from a poor family is three times more likely to die in an accident, more likely to die young and less likely to 'achieve'. Toynbee argues from this that it is up to Government to do something to correct this iniquitous state of affairs. Parental income, she argues, determines who will run the banks and who will sweep the floors.

This simplistic argument has so many flaws that it is difficult to know where to begin. For instance, in an ideal society, the work of those who sweep the floors would be valued just as highly as the work of those who run the banks - but this ideal society is not what Toynbee is arguing for. She seems to believe the patent nonsense that everyone should be running the banks. But if there is then nobody to clean the floors, what happens? Equality at this level does not insist that everyone should be doing the top jobs, but should recognise that in a complex society the work of each member is work of value. If we deny this then we are condemning those who for whatever reasons are not able to run banks to a life of being regarded as worthless, having nothing to offer. A true sense of equality of worth recognises the principle that each person should contribute to society according to their means.

Where Toynbee examines disparity of income between rich and poor she is exposing a well-known inequality and what is at times an injustice. It does seem obscene that some have annual bonuses of millions whereas others struggle to get by on next to nothing. But her answer simply will not do. She suggests a High Pay Commission to recommend a 'suitable national average'. This sounds not unreasonable at first sight. But in fact what she is suggesting is that Government should be empowered to tell us what to do with our money. If a company gives huge bonuses to its chairman that may be immoral, but it is difficult to see in what circumstances it could be called illegal. Do we really want government to decide how much should be paid to people? Do we really want government to decide what is just payment - not just for the super-rich, but for me? The point of principle is important here. Do we want to live in a free society or in a society where goernment decides on all the details of our lives and our social interactions. We might have a government we can trust today, but will we have such a government tomorrow? We need to think very carefully before giving away such sweeping powers.

Toynbee also seems to overlook one of the reasons for children remaining in the lower echelons of education. She seems to think that government can and should handle all the problems, but while it may be debatable whether government should it is certain that government cannot solve this problem. Now, there may be areas where government can do something useful, but an awful lot depends on a child's upbringing.
We do not need to question, for the sake of this argument, whether a parent loves their child. But the fact is that our education system does not distinguish between children from wealthy or poor backgrounds. The same opportunities are given to each. Where then is the problem?
A child from a family (rich or poor) that encourages that child to work, to do well, to gain results, is likely to do better than a child from a family (rich or poor) that does not give such encouragement. Encouragement in this sense is not a matter of wealth or resources. A generation or two ago there was a sense among most families that it was a good thing of their children could 'better themselves.' This has been lost, and many of the poorer sections of our society do not see the advantages enjoyed by those better off as things that are desirable, or worth working for.

The problems of inequality are not capable of being solved by government alone, but need also the active help of parents who desire to see their children succeed better than they themselves have. Without this, any givernment programmes will be doomed to failure. It is not a situation we can buy ourselves out of.

Toynbee is right to highlight the problems presented by glaring social inequality. Where she errs is to suggest that government alone can find a way out of it. The only way out of the problems that beset us is through a conjunction of enlightened government and concerned parents - both of which seem to be in short supply in a society which has as its main aim the right of the individua lto do as they like and be valued for what they are.