Everyone in British politics, right and left, is now talking about inequality and social justice. But there is much confusion and obfuscation. Specificity is required. Social justice has rather different implications depending on whether it comes from the right or the left of the political spectrum. Leaving aside issues of capital ownership, right social justice essentially relies of the economic concept of the ‘marginal productivity of labour’ (MPL). An individual’s share of society’s material rewards should exactly represent his or her individual contribution to the output of society (usually in effect the output of their employer).
The individual therefore has a responsibility to seek employment and expend effort in that employment if he is to achieve even an adequate standard of living. From this point of view further rewards to ‘talent’ or luck are not objects for intervention. ‘Talent’ here is taken to cover all those parameters such as genetics/parental background/social environment which might have an influence on the individual’s MPL. The right tends to regard talent as a random endowment. Policy for right social justice is therefore to ensure employment is available to all those that seek it, and those that do not ‘want’ it can be regarded as having ruled themselves out of concern.
The logic of the right position also suggests a concern that ‘effort’ is actually appropriately recorded by employers – but this difficult question is usually ignored, ostensibly on the basis that the market can be relied on to determine this. Essentially equality in material terms plays no significant part in this approach, beyond perhaps ensuring that gross breaches of effort-reward and talent-reward correlation do not take place (at the bottom of the reward distribution, at any rate). For consistency this should be done even-handedly between employers and employees. Exploitative employers and free-riding employees are equally worthy of punishment.
‘Equality of opportunity’ represents a shift away from this pure position with a concern for at least some of the talent or luck factors which no amount of effort may be able to compensate for. Apart from an intuitive ‘fairness’, there may also be some concern about the way in which the market sphere is less self-contained than the right might usually admit. A material advantage earned by genuine and meritorious effort, enhanced by luck or even talent may also allow that individual to secure social and political advantage for those close to her and her descendants. If this is so, the pure effort-reward correlation may be manipulated, and the ‘talent’ endowment become less and less random as advantages are given to some and obstacles placed in the way of others. Essentially the equal opportunity goal is to address the fragility of the ‘right social justice’ model and so ensure that effort is always rewarded equally and reward to talent reduced to its random elements. Everyone is entitled to at least a ticket for the lottery, although not everyone is expected to win. This approach is compatible with arbitrarily large degrees of actual inequality – anyone may (initially) have an equal chance of a good life – but very few may actually achieve it.
Equal opportunity faces practical issues. It depends on having access to political power against those currently holding economic power, and being willing to use it. It also depends on being able to identify a significant random element to talent that will be exposed once the more random elements are removed. Moreover, as identified by Janet Radcliffe Richards there is a conceptual confusion between equalising things that are purely instrumental, to doing so for things that are of value in themselves. Many of the things that are ‘lottery tickets’: education, health, good housing, etc. are clearly also goods in themselves.
Radcliffe Richards also identifies a distinction between levelling up and levelling down. If there is no impact on total welfare there is no obvious difference between levelling up and levelling down. For example extending the right to vote to women in 1918 did not involve taking away the right to vote from any men. The reduction in political influence of men was exactly matched by the increase in that of women. It would not generally be regarded as a valid argument against this action that government decisions subsequently became poorer – since the criteria for judging this depends at least in part on the opinion expressed by the electorate at the ballot box.
However an income tax increase followed by redistribution to the working poor clearly does involve loss of net income to those paying more tax. And it is clearly regarded by many – perhaps the majority – as a valid argument that by acting as a disincentive to higher earners, presumably more talented, economic performance is made poorer. If true, levelling down is taking place – which to be acceptable involves an explicit trade-off between equity and efficiency. More straightforwardly, unless the total quantity is constrained, restraining the ability to purchase better healthcare or education that most cannot obtain is levelling down and as such has been largely abandoned in the modern democracies.
As Radcliffe Richards argues then, equality of opportunity is really about equality over certain goods and about selectively increasing rather than levelling the availability of these goods. The debate should move on to consider more clearly what goods should be ‘equalised’ and why. The equal opportunity ideal that the reward-effort correlation is sustainable with purely procedural equality is a mirage, while at the other extreme, absolute equality of outcome requires arbitrarily set restrictions on difference. It cannot be achieved without authoritarianism and without trampling on some artefacts of human achievement.
Michael Walzer has identified that ‘justice’ is not a single concept but must relate to different ‘spheres’. We could summarize these spheres as belonging to Political, Economic and Organisational categories. (There is overlap here with Amartya Sen’s concept of equalising ‘capabilities’.) The most basic aspect of justice and one that is common to all these spheres is surely the right to state your case. Yet the reality is that of for most of us these exist only in very limited dimensions.
Political Sphere – Each of us over the age of 18 has a vote, yet a vote only allows us to preference our least worst candidate from a list not of our choosing.
Economic Sphere – At work we are expected to put our heart and soul into a project directed by others for a purpose we do not choose. Compensation for this is only in the financial dimension. There is little scope, should we wish it, to exchange more control at work for lower monetary reward. When we shop we are limited in our ability to inform retailers of how we would like them to obtain goods and from where. We can only take individual decisions to buy or not to buy whereas large international businesses can operate coherently to prioritise their own interests. Crucially we must rely on a single number – the price – to determine whether all the ramifications of a purchase – the sourcing, its benefits to us, the profit margin for the business – are in our interest or otherwise.
Organisational Sphere – Organisational justice refers to our dealing with bodies of which of we are ‘members’ – whether in the sense of a taxpayer-funded institutions such as a school or the NHS or private membership organizations. So this relates to a relationship with local councils in dealing with social services and healthcare – problems arise where we are treated as an illness or as a ‘case’ or as a set of boxes on a form.
Of course the ability to state a case to someone does not mean it will necessarily be acted on, but it certainly cannot be if it cannot be stated. And there is plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence that where personal communication takes place attitudes and actions do change. From a self-interested point of view, future conflict can often be avoided by small and non-costly growth and change – once the possibility is considered. The principal good, or in Sen’s term ‘capability’, to be equalised must therefore be ‘the power to participate in the social life of the community’ on the basis of Equality of Voice. If material inequality is good for everyone for reasons of incentive, it should be possible for the rich to make the case. But if material inequality leads to inequality of voice then there is little space for us to hear each other.
Voice in this regard has at least two dimensions: Volume and Articulacy. Volume would involve the frequency and number of outlets available, as well as the extent to which persuasive techniques are used. Articulacy would involve the extent to which accurate information is obtained, used, and expressed in a way that makes a rationally convincing case. An imbalance (particularly in the former) is likely to result in a particular voice having greater or lesser power. We can distinguish between volume and articulacy as to whether they are things we should be willing to level up or down. Articulacy is surely always a net positive whilst volume above a certain threshold is not. Achieving equality of voice will involve lowering the volume for some and raising it for others; and will involve increasing articulacy for those currently lacking it, but we would not want to reduce it for any one.
Policy Application of ‘Equality of Voice’
In general, Volume Equality would involve levelling access to the media by setting up processes that, without limiting freedom of speech, increased the consequences of misinformation and misrepresentation. Acting to level the media playing field by increasing the number and variety of outlets is also important. Articulacy Equality involves strict attention to the resources and importance given to education in terms of how to access information, evaluate and interpret it, and to express a point of view cogently. This should be regarded as at least as important, if not more so, than attention given to ‘employability’ – not that these are by any means exclusive.
Carrying the concept of Equality of Voice to Walzer’s Spheres of Justice, the following suggestions are indicative and not exclusive:
• Ensure media transparency and accountability in terms of political coverage
• Encourage more engagement of political institutions with citizens
• Introduce more transparency of political representation with open selections and proportional representation where party affiliation is important
• Legislate for public funding or pure membership funding of political parties
• There should be worker and community representation on (large) company boards
• Transactions should account for environmental and social impacts
• There needs to be unconditional economic valuation of individuals through a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or a flexible Job Guarantee scheme
• There must be direct local democratic control of health, social, housing services etc. – ideally with funding decisions moving more locally (facilitated by greater economic equality)