Comment: A meritocracy that makes a mockery of toil

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The Independent Online
Why does Chris Evans earn pounds 5m a year? Why did Nicola Horlick earn pounds 1m a year? Are they worth it? Are their earnings morally justifiable? These are questions that have been asked at least since the time Plato set a ratio of four-to-one between the wealth of the richest and that of the poorest citizen as the rule for his well-ordered republic. They are questions our society has largely ceased to ask itself, paradoxically in precisely the 18-year period when incomes at the top end of the scale have escalated out of all proportion to what went before.

What Mr Evans and Mrs Horlick have in common, apart from being dumped by their employers this week, is that they work in star-led industries. Mr Evans, the Radio 1 disc jockey and television personality, enjoys near- universal fame - or notoriety. "Radio's most revolting man" (Daily Mail), idol of rebellious youth, object of derision for sophisticated youth. Mrs Horlick, on the other hand, was a star in the closed and specialised field of pension fund management, and is now chiefly famous not just for that, but for combining it with her role as mother of five children. (Note that her husband, Tim, another City high-flier with Salomon Bros, is not known as a father-of-five "superman".)

As a society, we have long made exceptions for entertainers. The star system, invented in Hollywood, was about marking certain people out as utterly different from the rest of us, exempt from the rules that governed either our incomes or our private morality. But, as the star system has spread into a range of other activities, and has increasingly become the way rewards are allocated, it has had a distorting effect on notions of fairness.

It was not so long ago that the idea of "the rate for the job" was dominant in wage setting, not just for routine workers, but for footballers, lawyers and even newspaper columnists. Footballers would be paid by the game, lawyers by the hour and columnists by the word, on a series of fixed scales. Now all that has gone, and the rate for the job throughout the economy has largely been replaced by the language of market forces and competition. Stars in all fields are paid whatever price they can command in the market, and lesser mortals are much more aware of what their corner of the labour market will bear.

But there is a confusion here which it is worth setting aside. We believe in free markets, and we accept that Mr Evans and Mrs Horlick have been paid what their employers think they are worth. That does not make their seven-figure incomes "fair". For one thing, their jobs have been priced in a rigged market, full of cultural and institutional obstacles to free movement. The BBC is a quasi-monopoly provider; pensions fund management is a highly specialist industry in transition.

There are, however, much larger forces in play here. Michael Ignatieff, in his forthcoming Radio 4 series, A View of the Century, argues that one of the defining themes of this century is the mass aspiration to individual creativity. This may be a broad simplification, but it is an important insight. It is only in the 20th century that everyone in rich industrialised countries can aspire to self-fulfilment through their own creativity. In this American century, creativity is fame and fame is money. Young men on council estates in Manchester can hope to become rich and famous if they have a talent to entertain. Mr Evans's success is deeply subversive of meritocracy: what is the point of paying attention in class, passing your exams and staying out of trouble if someone with a wacky sense of humour or someone who plays computer games all the time ends up earning hundreds of times as much as the respectable toiler?

Mrs Horlick's success is different. Not only does she come from a privileged background, but she benefited from meritocracy to start with. One of the reasons why there are so many women - relatively speaking - in her field is because performance is highly transparent, and promotion is less dependent on male politics. But once you become a star in any City sector your salary is bid up exponentially because of your scarcity value. And the spread of the star system is dangerous not just to meritocracy, but to a feeling of fairness, and the value of community. Companies know that some differences in salary are necessary and acceptable, but that excessive differences can make team-working difficult. One of the problems Mrs Horlick ran into was that the star system breaks down corporate loyalties: her alleged crime was to be planning to defect to a rival bank with 20 of her staff.

"No individual is bigger than the interests or superior performance that has been achieved for clients over the past years as a result of a concerted team effort," said a Morgan Grenfell memo yesterday. "No one is bigger than Radio 1," said Matthew Bannister, the station's controller. They sound like the harsh disciplinarians of faceless bosses through the ages, but they make an important point. The breakdown of the old "rate for the job" mentality is a good thing. But we should now start being more concerned about fairness.

That is what Tony Blair appeared to be groping towards with his "stakeholder" rhetoric last year, although the word was more successful in driving people away from the subject than in stimulating argument. We know, however, that this subject has currency: John Major admitted, in one of his early clashes with the new Labour leader, that the government had a responsibility to reduce inequality. In the two years since then, he has not been asked what he meant. We hope that the question of fairness will become an election issue, and more than an election issue, during the course of this year.