The website of the centre-right-leaning Liberal think tank Liberal Reform used to say prominently, as though it was generally agreed, that Liberals believe in equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome. It’s still not unusual to meet people who suppose this is accepted Liberal Democrat doctrine. There is no such agreement – but first let’s try to unpick what these terms mean.

“Equality of opportunity” is a concept which is usefully applied in strictly defined situations. Take an example of alleged racial discrimination. Ms Shah and Mr Smith applied for the same job and both were shortlisted. Mr Smith got it. Ms Shah alleges illegal discrimination. Her advisors and the tribunal will look at the person specification and the job description, or if these do not exist, at whatever indications of the nature of the job and the requirements expected for it that they can find. They will look at the application forms (assuming there was a written application process) submitted by both applicants. They will look at all written records of the interviews and any other selection processes used such as tests and psychological profiling. They will then decide on the basis of the information before the appointment panel whether Mr Smith demonstrated he was the best candidate (irrespective of weaknesses he may not have shown or strengths Ms Shah may have had but failed to demonstrate) or whether, on the basis of the information available, Ms Shah was a stronger candidate than Mr Smith. If the latter is the case, they will make a presumption of discrimination.

This is a case of equality of opportunity being analysed at the point the two candidates applied. Only qualifications for the job are relevant. It’s not unduly difficult to evaluate and determine cases like this, especially if the employer has clear, written procedures.

For this purpose, all inequalities of upbringing, education and social class are ignored. Let’s say Ms Shah had got the job, demonstrating better than Mr Smith by application form and interview that she met the person specification, but her advantage owed a huge amount to her birth to wealthy and loving parents and to her privileged private education, whereas Mr Smith had been born to unpromising parents and had been educated in one of the less distinguished comprehensives. From the viewpoint of the law – tough.

Enthusiasts for equality of opportunity within the Liberal Democrats seem to focus mainly on education: they aim to bring up the standard of education so that it’s as near as possible equal for all. For a start, that’s clearly an aim which can only be achieved very incompletely.  As long as some people have more disposable wealth than others, some will choose to send their children to expensive private schools and there is no way the state or any substitute serving less wealthy people can resource its schools on the same level. Even among state schools, however hard the responsible authority tries to level up, some will be much better than others and parent choice cannot correct this. Creating a real market in “state” education would mean some unsuccessful (or unpopular) schools struggling, declining and finally closing, with serious effects on the children attending them in their death throes. Some schools will always have improved recently and others slipped. Parent choice is limited by geography and the cost of travel. Besides, the school that’s best at one thing may be inferior at another and parents may not correctly identify what things their child will most need in work or in life.

That’s just schooling. It’s under a degree of state control. But what about parenting? This is a profound influence on the fortunes of young people and they have no control over it. It goes on simultaneously with schooling. Suppose Ms Shah and Mr Smith went to the same school and had, as near as possible, the same educational opportunities; but one had loving and supportive parents who valued education, while the other had parents who were abusive, uncaring, hostile to education or at perpetual war with one another. That’s surely an unfair advantage. It seems totally artificial to consider education as a factor in equality or inequality of opportunity and not parenting. Yet for politicians there is a huge problem: not only is parenting outside any kind of state control except at the worst extremes, but any attempt to influence it is political dynamite and easily portrayed as “the nanny state”.  The state, at national or local levels, may seek to help parents and to intervene cautiously to give added help to children disadvantaged by bad family circumstances, but much will remain beyond its reach.

Then what about the genes Ms Shah and Mr Smith inherited? Plenty of room for unfair advantage there. This of course is (at present, though remember genetic engineering) a reductio ad absurdum; but the point is that any definition or measure of equality of opportunity depends on drawing arbitrary lines, including some influences and excluding others. That does not make the concept useless, especially in limited and easily-defined circumstances like that appointment we started with. But it does mean that politicians who raise equality of opportunity as an ideal should be asked to be more specific.

Equality of Outcomes is easier to evaluate, provided the outcomes are defined and agreed. It hasn’t been used as a slogan like Equality of Opportunity, partly because the word “outcomes” has only become popular quite recently and partly because the word “levelling” was already available. Clearly even in the most egalitarian of societies there will be inequalities of wealth, income or health, but the supporter of this kind of equality seeks to flatten the pyramid somewhat. So, given the number of outcomes that might be measured is endless, which ones are people really talking about? The most important ones, presumably.

The focus has been mainly on wealth and income. Money talks and this focus is understandable, though some desirable outcomes such as health and happiness don’t necessarily follow it: someone with little wealth earning a modest income from a smallholding and a certain amount of computer-based consultancy may be healthier and happier than someone rich on a vast income dependent on working very long hours in an insecure job with a bullying culture. However, some desirable things such as happiness or artistic creativity are very hard to measure and some, like health, are quite uncontroversial in that few Liberals will be unconcerned about big disparities of health between different communities or classes. So equality of wealth and income becomes the main disputed territory.

Since measuring income takes no account of what unavoidable outgoings the person may have, disposable income may be a better measure, but arguments about what outgoings are unavoidable could go on a long while. Since wealth may be tied up and inaccessible to someone (for example, they may not be able to access the wealth represented by the home they own without becoming homeless or becoming liable to substantial rent payments, or they may have a life insurance policy), disposable wealth may be a better measure and comparatively easy to assess.

So how do Liberals view an aim of reducing disparities in disposable income and wealth – or of increasing them? The issue is of course not only for Liberals: Tony Blair offended many in his party when he said New Labour was “intensely relaxed” about people being rich. Whether it’s possible to be intensely relaxed without being asleep, in a trance or in deep meditation may be left aside for the moment. The Blair/Brown government did try to reduce poverty, but saw this aim as uncoupled from reducing extreme wealth.

There are four possible honourable motives for wanting to take more money and other resources from the rich. One is dislike of rich people (honourable if not necessarily right). We can dismiss that as a motive to be recommended. A second is with the idea of transferring resources from rich to poor, as an effective way of helping poor people. A third is to aim at a less unequal society because it will be a healthier, happier society, not just for the people at the bottom of the pile.  

The second motive is to do with improving the position of those people at the bottom – out of compassion, or a belief that their condition is unjust, or (in particularly Liberal terms) to increase their opportunities in life, since so many things are barred to people in poverty. This argument depends on the position that transferring resources from the richest to the poorest people (through differential tax policies, for example) will be an effective way of helping the poorest and falls if it can be demonstrated that it would be ineffective in helping the poorest people. It might turn out that the richest people were so well able to protect their wealth that pursuing it would be fruitless, or that the effect on the economy as a whole would be negative, leaving rich people worse off but poor people no better off in absolute terms.

The third motive would not necessarily be invalidated by these problems. There is evidence that the most unequal countries have high crime rates and relatively unhealthy populations compared to the least unequal. This is hardly surprising. There are also two points of particular interest to Liberals. First, even if on the face of it power is evenly distributed (every adult has the vote, in fairly-distributed constituencies and so on), wealthy people and corporations will wield disproportionate power, for example by donations to political campaigns. Thus a more even distribution of disposable wealth will lead to a more equal distribution of power. Secondly, a more economically equal society should be one where individual opportunities are maximised. Take away a hundred thousand pounds from one millionaire, and there will be few things he or she wanted to do and cannot now do because of the loss. Life will go on much as before. Distribute that hundred thousand pounds among a hundred poor people, one thousand pounds each, and all sorts of things will become possible that were impossible before.

The fourth reason should appeal to classical Liberals. The more inequality of income exists in a country, the more need there is for expensive and directive public services because the people at the bottom of the heap need a lot of help.

There are thus solid Liberal arguments for redistribution. Most of the arguments against relate to the impact on the economy or a need for increased state intervention to achieve the redistribution. These are practical issues and both sides are arguable. There is no argument of principle against redistribution on the grounds that we should instead be promoting economic growth, as the two are not irreconcileable. Some actions to promote one may damage the other, but that’s a classic situation for calm analysis and “evidence-based policy-making”. It’s not a question of principle.

There ought not to be a struggle between enthusiasts for equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes, because equality of opportunity in a society of vast inequalities of wealth is a mirage. Yes, the chance someone born to a place at the bottom of the pile has to rise to the top may be increased from 0.1% to 1%, but they will still be at a huge disadvantage compared to someone born fortunate.

Those who recoil from any talk of aiming at greater equality of outcomes should be asked whether, if it were possible for a society to have equality of opportunity and extreme inequalities of outcomes (a devil-take-the-hindmost society) they would see this as satisfactory. For me, such a society is not only likely to be deeply divided and unstable, it’s bound to be unfair as success will often be determined by factors we cannot affect. It is also likely to be extremely materialistic in its values, with contempt for “losers” and those who opt out of the competition.

I suggested that another, less familiar way of subdividing the concept of equality would be in terms of what was equal, in particular power or material wealth. Socialists have tended to concentrate on reducing inequalities of wealth and income and shown relatively little interest in redistributing power except to themselves to wield it. Liberals’ commitment to reducing inequalities of wealth has been much debated and I’ve referred to that above; but the Liberal record of assaulting inequalities of power speaks for itself. Conrad Russell argued that Liberalism was primarily about the dispersal of power. So attacking inequality of power is characteristically Liberal and attacking inequalities of wealth is characteristically Socialist. But in fact each on its own is ineffective. An equal distribution of the right to vote and other rights is weak protection against large concentrations of wealth dominating public-decision-making and ensuring protection for their interests. While Socialists have broadly supported equality of power of a sort, most of them have been happy with concentrations of power distant from the people and (in Britain) have had little interest in making voting systems fairer to better reflect people’s wishes.

A Liberal attitude to power is not just that a small amount of power should be fairly evenly spread among the masses, with most power only notionally under their influence, but that power should be brought near to individuals so that individuals and small communities are empowered. Thus the assault on privilege includes an assault on unresponsive bureaucracy. That is not to say that bureaucracy is wrong. It’s too often an easy Aunt Sally for populists. Effective, honest and fair government needs bureaucracy: for a Liberal the question is how responsive it is to the needs of the people and whether concentrations of power are strictly necessary. Thus the question of equality shades into the question of community politics, which is essentially egalitarian.

An extreme example of a Socialist approach to inequalities of wealth and power can be seen in the former Soviet Union. The idealists who set it up aimed at as much economic equality as possible, but they concentrated power in a few hands. The result was not only extreme inequality of power, but also privileged access to goods and services for party members.

As Simon Kovar pointed out in Liberal Magazine(the neo Liberal Democrats, August 2010) Liberals traditionally “have argued for a redistribution of wealth and opportunity from the rich to the poor”. Moves towards equality of power and equality of wealth need to go together and support one another.

Moreover, both are ultimately a means to an end – as the original Yellow Book of 1928 put it,  “that individual men and women may have life and that they may have it more abundantly”.

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