Podium: Some rules for a society of equals
From a lecture delivered by the reader in philosophy at University College, London
Tuesday 02 February 1999
Perhaps Tawney's real view is that while equality of wealth is very important, it is not the most important thing.
I take Tawney to mean that we can put goods into at least two classes. In one class are those where, if one person is to have more, than at least one other must have less.
In the other category of goods are those where at least some can have more without anyone ending up with less. At this stage Tawney gives no examples, but consider the good of "a feeling of security". If a neighbourhood feels safe, then someone moving in to that neighbourhood may benefit from an increased sense of security without anyone else suffering a cost of any sort. There is only gain.
This dual concern is a constant theme in egalitarian thought, certainly up to Bernard Williams's classic paper The Idea of Equality (1962). Williams argues for the egalitarian view of material distribution, "each according to their need", on the grounds that other policies are insufficiently governed by reason and are thus irrational.
This argument was countered with great force by the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick argued that egalitarian theories of distributive justice proceed as if goods fell to earth like manna from heaven; as if all consumable products existed in a "big social pot" and we should sit there waiting for our share to be allocated to us.
Consider Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ants. One fine day in winter, some ants were busy drying their store of corn, which had got rather damp during a long spell of rain. Presently, up came a grasshopper and begged them to spare her a few grains. "For," she said, "I'm simply starving."
The ants stopped work for a moment, though this was against their principles. "May we ask," said they, "what you were doing with yourself all last summer? Why didn't you collect a store of food for the winter?" "The fact is," replied the grasshopper, "I was so busy singing that I hadn't the time." "If you spent the summer singing," replied the ants, "you can't do better than spend the winter dancing." And they chuckled and went on with their work.
We may not all admire the ants' rather sadistic lack of charity here, but it seems very hard to say that the grasshopper has any claim in justice for a share in the ants' product, still less an equal share.
It seems to me that in the last 20 years or so, many theorists and politicians have become obsessed with the sort of issues that come to the fore in thinking about this fable.
Although he may not wish to put it exactly in these terms himself, Ronald Dworkin's position is that the requirement of egalitarian justice is to even up fortune and misfortune that are the result of good and bad luck, but not to even up fortune and misfortune that are the result of good and bad choices.
Or, to put this proposition in a slightly different way, it is a requirement of egalitarian justice that undeserved (and only undeserved) disadvantage should be rectified.
This sorts out the ants and the grasshopper nicely. The grasshopper is starving because of her bad choice of singing rather than working over the summer. Had she failed to work because she didn't have the ability to, or had the ability, but no access to land, the case would be very different. But the ants would have no obligation to, as Dworkin puts it, "subsidise her choices".
What we should appreciate, though, is how such a view would be applied in practice. You will be entitled to welfare benefits only if you can show that you lack the opportunities that others have had; this, after all, is what makes the difference in the cases where we think the grasshopper is, and is not, entitled to support from the ants.
One thing that is remarkable about this is that such highly conditional systems of benefit were once considered right-wing policies. My own view is that contemporary egalitarians have forgotten half of Tawney's teachings. Conditional benefits can create social division and humiliation. A society of equals would have less inquisitive welfare policies.
TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies
Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tourist films plane's descent just metres above packed Caribbean beach
- 2 Indian woman creates 'Marriage CV' after parents put her on dating site: 'Definitely not marriage material. Won’t grow long hair, ever'
- 3 World Book Day: Boy 'excluded' from school after dressing up as Fifty Shades' Christian Grey
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 GamerGate: developer Tim Schafer provokes rage with joke about online gaming activists at industry awards
The 9 rules every Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon had to follow are wonderfully pedantic
Toy Story 4: Pixar promises a romcom storyline 'separate' from the much-loved trilogy
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
World Book Day: Boy 'excluded' from school after dressing up as Fifty Shades' Christian Grey
The world's most beautiful libraries: Introducing Franck Bohbot's House of Books project
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Elif Shafak: Turkish author warns against rise of British nationalism
Ex-head of MI6: 'We shouldn't kid ourselves that Russia is on a path to democracy'
Most people think legal tax avoidance is just as wrong as illegal tax evasion, poll suggests