Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Athens

Equality – The Kind That Really Matters

or why status is not a zero-sum game

This essay jumps headfirst into a complex debate which deserves a more careful set of introductory comments. However, I am pressed for time, and so I merely want to offer a few philosophical thoughts in response to some of the practical work that I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

The limits of reasonable income inequality

One of the most important political philosophers at the end of the twentieth century was John Rawls. He asserts:

All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage. (A Theory of Justice p. 62)

In principle Rawls offers us what appears to be a highly egalitarian starting point for social justice. However, in practice, the publication of his A Theory of Justice, his ground-breaking work in political theory, coincided with the end of a moderately egalitarian period in the political development of English speaking countries. Since the 1970s income inequality has grown significantly in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia and governments of all colours have abandoned any serious effort to promote income equality as a social goal. I am not blaming John Rawls for the collapse of egalitarianism and the rise of neoliberalism – but it is a curious coincidence.

The principle that Rawls is most famous for advancing, a principle that arises logically from the assertion above, is the maximin principle: Social arrangements should be so organised that the position of the worst off (the min) should be as high as possible (the max) and that if a certain level of inequality makes such an improvement possible then – only to that limited extent – such inequalities would be justified.

As someone who studied Rawls in the 1980s I remember this as a convincing theoretical position. How could I as an egalitarian resist a level of inequality that improved the position of the worst off? However looking back today I wonder what real effort we made to distinguish Rawls’ position from the idea of trickle-down economics: Let the rich make as much money as possible in the hope that the poorest would benefit – for a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’

It turns out, if we examine the data of the last 40 years – as I did recently – this is a forlorn hope. It is very clear that growing inequality has not improved the position of the poorest, nor even overall economic growth. In fact, in the UK at least, as inequality increased so have the incomes of the poorest fallen. What is worse, because it is clearly intentional, is that the political system further reduced the incomes of the poorest by policy changes that were highly regressive. In fact we’ve stolen from the poor three times: First by allowing greater economic inequality; second by redistributing money away from the poor by political policy; third by pouring scorn and stigma on the heads of the poor through shameful political rhetoric.

Rawls’ argument was equivalent to saying: Poison sometimes improves our health and so we should sometimes be willing take poison. For, in fact, all medicines are also poisons – what is critical is to take exactly the right amount of the poison if you want the beneficial impact. However instead of taking care to find the correct dose of inequality we’ve been swallowing inequality by the bottle and declaring our overdose success.

Meanwhile, if someone did identify the sweet spot for a legitimate level of inequality, then I guess I missed the news.

Instead of careful efforts to limit and control inequality in the interests of poor we’ve seen trickle-down economics rise unchallenged as the economic philosophy of our time. Instead of attempts to quantify the minimum level of inequality necessary to lift the incomes of the poorest we’ve seen a number of other more dangerous arguments and assumptions rush to fill the vacuum in Rawls’ argument.

For instance, some argue that the economy needs a free labour market to efficiently allocate resources to promote the skills necessary for the economy: If we need to pay an extra £10,000 to get the right doctor, an extra £100,000 to get the right CEO or an extra £1,000,000 to get the right football player, then we must do so.

This kind of free market argument seems quite persuasive, if we don’t think too hard. After all this seems precisely the kind of reason why Rawls might allow us to release the hounds of inequality from their leash: To incentivise better performance and recruit people for essential skills – whether they be medical, commercial or athletic. But a moment’s thought must make us wonder whether we’re confusing the good of the worst-off with the good of a particular community:

  • If we need more doctors, don’t recruit doctors from Africa or Asia (where they are needed even more) to come to Europe (where we have plenty already and could certainly train more).
  • If your company needs a better CEO then train one, don’t bribe someone to leave their current job by simply offering them more money than they get now.
  • If you are a fan then you may be happy that the wealth of your team allows you to poach the best players from other teams. But none of this adds to the quality of football.

Incentives may offer a different kind of argument: There is surely a case for rewarding people for good work and discouraging people from doing bad work. But very low levels of inequality leave plenty of room for incentives. Good work is surely what we want everyone to do as a norm and inequality makes it harder to reward good work when everyone is working well.

In fact I think the case could be made that what is more important than positive incentives is the possibility of failure. Failure is what makes all forms of progress possible. Systems that makes failure impossible or too expensive are systems that do not develop and improve. The failure of state socialism in Russia was not an excess of equality, it was an excess of security, where rigid economic structures didn’t adapt to changing circumstances. (One of the arguments for basic income, which I support, is that it would make economic failure, and therefore improvement, much less risky.)

Another weak argument for inequality, but one that is heavily relied upon by advocates of inequality, is that economic goods (let’s call this wealth) are not created in a zero-sum game. If you are not familiar with the idea of a zero-sum game let me try and explain what this means:

Chess is a zero-sum game. I can win and you lose, you can win and I lose or we can draw. We can’t both win. Some things in life are much more like chess: winners are matched by losers. Zero-sum games can only redistribute a finite (fixed) amount of resources. Land is finite and hence the distribution of land is a zero-sum game.

Not everything is a zero-sum game. For instance, education is not a zero-sum game (unless you’re doing it very badly). Everybody can learn, and if I develop some ability at Latin, I do not reduce your ability to understand Latin or anything else.

Whether economics is a zero-sum game is a critical question, but also quite complex. When we look at the economy from some perspectives then it can seem a zero-sum game. For instance, the UK’s recent Coalition Government increased VAT, increased income tax thresholds and cut benefits. The combined impact of these changes was to reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% (6.5 million people) by 9% and to increase the incomes of those on middle-incomes. Government redistribution like this is, in the short-term at least, a zero-sum game.

Not all economic change is like this. If people begin to find new ways to organise things then this may increase the overall amount of wealth. Better farming techniques can improve productivity overall. Industrialisation and technology can increase the availability of useful products. These changes are much more like educational changes, new ideas and technologies change how we do things to make more possible.

However, sadly, these transformational changes, that certainly do accelerate economic production, are also associated with the greater levels of social injustice, uprootedness and insecurity. Often they led to riots, rebellions and revolutions. So, while such economic growth can potentially benefit the many, it usually seems to benefit the few, especially in the short-run. We are discovering the same today as global businesses and technologies demolish old ways of working, accelerate inequality and reward socially irresponsible behaviour.

I think this means that economics is not quite a zero-sum game; but neither are most economic goods infinite. Distribution remains a critical issue, especially for obviously finite goods like land and access to basic resources (like water, food, clothing and healthcare). It is also clear that we should be constrained by our respect for the planet as well as the needs of each other.

The evidence that economic inequality is good for us and is justified by its impact on the poor is very poor. In fact we don’t seem in much of a hurry to gather evidence on this matter at all; perhaps we are simply in awe of the power of money and don’t know how to put the dogs of inequality back on the leash. When money can buy public policy and research, as it does today in the UK, there may be few incentives to be honest about the limitations of inequality. Perhaps also, the glaring failure of socialist states like the USSR, has rather blinded us to the obvious success of democratic welfare states, like Denmark, at finding a much better balance of equality and productivity.

The importance of status

One other thing that strikes me, looking back on Rawls, is that most of the discussion about equality has tended to be highly materialistic. Perhaps we should have looked rather harder at what Rawls called the “bases of self-respect” for surely the respect in which we are held, particularly our status as an equal, is of much more importance to an egalitarian than the particular bag of money we happen to be holding.

In fact neoliberals often deploy a version of this argument when they propose that egalitarians are simply promoting the vice of envy: There is nothing wrong with inequality; inequality is helpful and essential; you are simply envious of the better-off and your envy is wrong in itself and damaging in its impact. You’ll drag everyone and everything downwards in your quest for equality.

Now, I think it is rather easy to show that income inequality (perhaps beyond some modest level) is harmful. It is also possible to show that income inequality is controllable – if you want to control it. However I do think there is something to the argument that income is not everything and that there is something worrying about a society fixated on achieving income equality as if that were the most important goal.

True equality does not meant I have exactly the same amount of money in my bank account as my neighbour: It is to live with my neighbour as an equal – for us to value and respect each other as equals.

Moreover the reason that this kind of equality is important is not that my neighbour and I are equal: We are not the same and we do not want to be the same; we are different from each other, along an infinite array of dimensions.

What we seek is an equality of status, of respect; perhaps we could almost say that we seek spiritual, not material, equality. Moreover there is a name for this kind of equality and that name is citizenship. For at least two and half thousand years, and possibly longer, some humans have sought to live together in a community of equals.

One famed example is ancient Athens, the home of democracy, where Pericles once said:

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the polis (community) as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics (community life) – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics (the community) is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all… (cited by Thucydides)

What mattered in Athens was to be a citizen, and as such you had equal status with other citizens. Of course, Athenian citizenship excluded slaves, women and foreigners, but it still offers an important example of a different approach to equality. Moreover, in many ways it was much more egalitarian in its actual organisation and spirit than is a modern democracy. Athenian citizens had much more influence over and involvement in the life of their community than we do today.

And is this kind of equality not a more fundamental kind of equality? We do not want people to be uniform; we do not want lives to be standardised; we should surely not care too much about differences in roles, resources or relationships. Surely, what we want is a world where everyone can flourish, in all their diversity, and where everyone is treated with respect – as an equal.

If you accept this argument then you might think that it gives some support to the neoliberal position: Stop worrying about inequality; stop envying the rich.

However, this is wrong. It is in fact precisely because status equality, not income equality, is the goal of a just society that we actually need to take income equality much more seriously.

At this point I’d like to quote an argument from C. S. Lewis. But we moved house last year and most of my books are still in the garage; so I will try and make his argument from memory. The reason we should take great care to limit the visible and obvious differences between us, like differences in wealth, is not that we are all equal, but that we are all different. It is because of our much deeper and wilder diversity that should ensure that we clothe ourselves as equals. The disciplines of equality exist to help diverse people live in a spirit of equality.

This may seem a paradox, but it is not. We are beings who are each unique and diverse, but who are also each of equal moral worth. In living together we must find a way to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and yet respect each other as equals. We can do this by choosing to live as citizens; that is we can choose to live in a society that honours our shared status as equal citizens. In so far as we discover that certain kinds of artificial differences (like income) can become excessive, that they can threaten our ability to treat each other as equals, then we should restrict or tame those differences. Excessive income inequality does threaten our ability to see each other equals, particularly by stoking the pride and greed of those with the most; but also by encouraging a sense of worthlessness in those with the least. Income inequality is corrosive of most of our virtues and it makes it much harder to live in a spirit of equality.

Status is certainly not a zero-sum game. Societies can exist with very low levels of status; in fact the twin concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy offer us a vision for society where the highest status goes to the ‘best’ and the lowest become the ‘worst’ – the scapegoat, scrounger or outcast. Meritocracies produce very low levels of status overall by using a narrow and highly rationed account of social value. Almost everyone’s a loser in a meritocracy.

Citizenship maximises the distribution of status by equalising that status – everyone can share in it. Moreover society can not only adopt equal citizenship as its goal; it can go further and also seek to welcome others into citizenship. If male Athenians had welcomed women as equals, allowed foreigners to become citizens or abandoned slavery then it would have advanced equal status for all. There would have been no loss of equal-status for male citizens. (I accept that this would have made the category of citizen less ‘special’ within Athens – but this kind of enhanced status is actually a form of meritocracy and is not essential to the kind of true and equal citizenship which I am arguing for). To feel you are an equal and to see others as equals is a real form of non-hierarchical status and it is the best form of self-respect – because it takes nothing away from anyone else.

It is this is inclusive account of citizenship what some of us have been exploring as we develop Citizen Network: How to build a world where everyone is a citizen, where everyone is equal and everyone is different.

How to find justice

So, if we return to Rawls, then I think my argument is that Rawls has made a fundamental error. He forgot that a just society does not start by redistributing resources in order to advance the bases of self-esteem. Instead it begins by commiting itself wholeheartedly to equality, and it does so by establishing equal and universal citizenship as the basic role which everyone can occupy.

Rawls tried to get to equality ‘by going round the houses’ – by focusing on economic goods first – and I think this is connected to another mistake that Rawls makes:

There is no reason to assume our sense of justice can be adequately characterised by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 47)

The fundamental problem here is that Rawls is seeking a formula for justice which must be applied to society from the outside. He is not offering us an attractive conception of justice, one towards which we can turn, around which we can rally and one which enables us to build a just society together. Instead Rawls is offering a complex and ambiguous template for ghostly civil servants or philosopher-kings to interpret on our behalf.

If we are not motivated towards justice by a shared conception of justice then no operating principle, however sophisticated will save us: For who is to interpret and implement such a principle? If we do not choose to live as citizens, and if we do not act to build a world for citizens, then we choose to live in a world where inequality is guaranteed.

If we are motivated towards justice then what matters is identifying it, living by it and disciplining ourselves according to its needs. Our fundamental principle must be that we are citizens, we are all equals and that we must welcome others into this world of citizenship.

Time to Rethink Charity

Charities are in the news. Many seem to be failing, failing as businesses, failing in standards or failing in their role as advocates. Standing back, we can see two tendencies, one very negative, the other potentially positive, although currently much weaker.

The negative trend in the UK is the on-going collapse of the public and voluntary sectors and the invasion of large private organisations who are privatising Whitehall, the NHS, schools, local government and even the voluntary sector. For some this is called ‘modernisation’ but it is hard to see what is so modern about disastrous and corrupting inefficiency of projects like the Public Finance Initiative, the Work Programme or the inane procurement regimes which drive out community organisation and true innovation.

Again and again we find that when the public sector tries to harness the ‘dynamism’ of the private sector it often finds itself on the losing side of the deal. This is not surprising, when one side of the deal comes motivated to maximise profit, while the other is just following procedures, then expect a mess. Neither side is to blame – oil and water do not mix.

One of the saddest features of this collapse is the way in which so many charities, many with long and noble histories, have found themselves climbing on board the privatisation bandwagon. Today many charities are no more than inefficient private business – with high CEO salaries, poor terms and conditions for staff and bureaucratic cultures. There is nothing dynamic and creative about this new kind of voluntary sector – often there is nothing particularly voluntary about it either.

However this is not the full story. There are also a new forms of organisation emerging, ethical businesses, who do not just focus on profit; and community organisations that are dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative. For organisations like these the old charity model no longer seems to apply.

This old charity model still dominates our legal structures, and it fits into an understanding of civil society which goes something like this:

  1. The public sector provides core public services – from policing to healthcare. The sector is managed and controlled by politicians, who are accountable to the public (every few years).
  2. The private sector provides services or goods that people pay for. It is commercial and focuses on profit. It survives only when we buy what it offers.
  3. The charity sector harnesses our citizenship, enabling people to give, time, money or passion to supplement core public services.
  4. In particular the governance of charities must be voluntary, for this is meant to make it immune to the profit motive (and hence it is protected from corporation tax).

This model may have worked reasonably well in the past. But it is not clear how these distinctions hold when:

  • Government stops providing services and starts to buy them (what is called commissioning).
  • Instead of services people are given budgets to buy their own support (what is called personalisation).
  • Some business are choosing ethical objectives (what is called social enterprise).

It would be easy to declare the whole thing a farce, to dissolve the distinctions and to leave the market to sort everything out. Let people and government buy what seems best, let businesses grow, transform and become ethical. Let charities wither, if they no longer offer ‘good value’.

But, as G K Chesterton said, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” In this case the reason for the strong distinction between the profit motive and the ethical motive is that it doesn’t take long before the profit motive wins hands down. Profit enables businesses to buy political influence, control and even the appearance of being ethical. This is the reason that the likes of SERCO, A4E and G4S keep winning contracts from the public sector, while the small, the local and the ethical struggle to survive.

Instead of abandoning the distinction between the profit-seeking and the charitable it may be better to redefine it. In fact there may be a much better distinction available to us.

Today, when we use the word ‘market’ we usually think only of commercial exchange – buying and selling. The term has become captured by narrow liberal economics. However if we go back to ancient Athens and revisit their version of the market – what they called the ‘agora’ then we find, not just commercial exchange, but a whole range of human activities: teaching, praying, playing, politics, government. The agora is a public space and it was marked off by a series of sacred marker stones which could not be moved and beyond which no private property could be claimed.

So Athens, one of the most creative and fruitful places in human history, protected its public spaces from private enclosure. However Athens did not put all of the activities of the agora under control of the ‘demos.’ It was not public (or democratic) control that made something public – it was its appearance in the public space. It was the transparency of these affairs, as opposed to their privacy, for privacy is the essence of the private. The agora was a space in which we came outside and behaved as individual, diverse and interacting citizens.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the assembly, where the people met to make democratic decisions in together, was actually outside the agora – on a hill called the Pnyx. The Pnyx overlooks both the agora and the Acropolis, which was also a distinct site, and which was protected for the sacred purpose of worship. The agora, the space for free citizen action, was therefore distinct from both those areas where people came together to act as a whole people – in making decisions or worshipping God. The agora was plural, diverse and sacred.

Can we then replace the profit-voluntary distinction with a different public-private distinction?

Perhaps we should distinguish what makes something public from what makes something private, and in particular we should work hard to define and protect those things which are public – which we all share together – from those things that are private.

Here are some thoughts on what measures we might use to guard the public:

  • Local – Things that are rooted in the local are more reliable than the national or international where only a brand, a logo or profile is visible.
  • Transparent – When we aim to serve the public we will be quite happy to let people know our salaries, our savings, our funding and our workings.
  • No copyright – If we are interested in the public interest we will not want to protect private property rights and milk citizens for years to come.

Perhaps a further advantage of this approach might be to help us think about what David Miliband used to call “double devolution” the shift in power back to people and to communities. Devolution to the individual means that some public services need to be converted into private entitlements – in particular incomes sufficient to meet our basic needs. However other public services need to be converted into public goods – resources that communities themselves can examine, support or transform.

In this way we can overcome the reductive simplifications of Marxism with its ludicrous suspicion of private property and the very natural human activity of trade. Yet we can also remember that we also need public goods, safeguarded from the invasion of the private, that there to be enjoyed – in one way or other – by all of us.

Ideal Markets or Real Markets

In public policy we use the word ‘market’ in radically different ways and in fundamentally inconsistent ways.

For the liberal (or if you prefer, neoliberal) the word ‘market’ is used to describe a special kind of human interaction – the ‘free exchange of goods or services at an agreed price’. The beauty of this liberal vision lies in the market’s seemingly magical ability to achieve three wonderful things at the same time:

  • It is a place of freedom – free individuals come together to bargain and exchange
  • It is a place of community – people make promises to each other and bind each other by contracts
  • It is a place of productivity – time, energy and money flow into the places which have the most value.

Of course, this vision of the market is just a beautiful ideal. In the real world:
The starting point is not fair, and advantages accrue to those already advantaged, and so freedom turns into exploitation.

When relationships of power are radically unequal then the community we create is atomised and elitist.
The most productive is not always the best; commerce can destroy nature, community, industry and even politics itself (as we are finding out to our cost in the UK).

And most liberals do know this. The market is their ideal, but they accept that in many areas there will be what they call ‘market failure’ and – for various reasons – it is recognised that the ideal market cannot really exist. So they will – to varying degrees – accept that markets must be controlled or an alternative system offered in their place. The market is for the liberal a ‘Platonic ideal’ – it may not be fully realisable – but we should strive towards it and use it evaluate the real.

Thus economics becomes the measure of man, not man the measure of economics.

Of course there are those who do not worship the market. These anti-liberals include socialists and conservatives. This may seem a surprising alliance and we often forget that there used to be a very different kind of conservative (small c) philosophy – one that valued King, country, religion, the local and the small. But this kind of conservatism now has nothing to do with the UK’s Conservative party. The Conservative party is now the leading ‘liberal’ party and it is no longer in the business of ‘conserving’ anything at all – except perhaps the interests of the rich and the powerful.

The anti-liberal thinks of the market not as a space but as a force:

  • The financial market is a malevolent force selling fraudulent products or gambling with our savings.
  • The housing market is crazy bubble where our own greed drives up prices to the benefit only of those who can escape it at the right point.
  • Markets drive the growth of monopolies, big business and the industrialisation of almost everything – markets even seem to kill the possibility of markets.

Of course socialists and conservatives also will accept the need for markets. Only the most zealous want to control food production, everyday shopping or enterprise. But the market is, for them, not an ideal space, but a demon, to be controlled and harnessed. At best its energy provides other resources and so it can be taxed to support the things the anti-liberal really values.

Until the 1990s the battle between the liberal and the anti-liberal was largely fought on the margin of the sphere of public services. Markets were for private goods and services; when it came to public services it was the state that was in control. There was a disagreement about what should be nationalised and what should be left free – but no disagreement that nationalisation meant – ‘outside the market’.

But this has now changed radically. Today it is quite common to hear people talk about markets for public services: the social care market, the healthcare market, the market for social housing. However these markets rarely have any of the qualities that the liberal associates with markets. It is not people, making free decisions, who buy these services – it is commissioners or governments. Here the word ‘market’ takes on a third meaning – roughly – ‘the stuff we spend public money on’.

So we are left with three entirely different and contradictory meanings for the term market:

  1. A space within which free, contractual and efficient exchanges can take place – the idealised market
  2. A force which can redistribute, steal or exploit resources and power – the demonised market
  3. An array of objects, services or products, perhaps purchased by the state or its agent – the phoney market

Of course when a word is so used and abused it is easy to lose patience and to simply abandon the whole concept. What is the value of the word ‘market’ when it means three contradictory things?

However I would like to make the case for a fourth use of the term – I would like to make the case for the market as an ‘agora’ – a free, protected and public space where a whole range of human activities can be carried out. The agora is not primarily economic – it is simply the space the community needs to collaborate and to work together. Business can be done there, but it is not defined by business.

I was very struck a few years ago to find, on a visit to Athens, that the ancient agora had been marked off by sacred stones. The purpose of these stones was to protect the agora from the private – from the invasion of the sacred space by people’s desire to extend their houses or gardens. It was sacrilege to privatise the market – the market was public property – divinely blessed.

What is more the agora was not just for shopping. The agora was for every kind of public business. The school master taught his students; philosophers sat on the stoa, a shaded area on the edge of the agora (hence stoics); government officers worked and ran meetings; and temples operated. The agora is messy and human – lots of stuff goes on – out in the public square. The agora even housed the building for weights and measures – the system for checking on cheats – for ‘regulating the market’.

Interestingly the agora excluded the Acropolis (the centre of religious life), the assembly which met on the Pnyx (the centre of political power) and the Areopagus (the centre of justice). Each of these institutions was based on one of the hills looking down over the agora from on high.

Perhaps it is time to leave the idealised, demonised and phoney markets behind us. Perhaps it is time to work out how to protect and cherish real markets – the agora – those essential public arenas in which we do stuff together.

Today these place will not just be physical – they will also be virtual – but they are essential. Without the agora we cannot be fully human.

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