Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Party of privilege?

I've been meaning to write a political post for a little while. So here it is.

A week or so ago I heard Ben Bradshaw MP make a comment contrasting the Labour party - the party of the majority - with the Conservatives - the party of privilege. I imagine we can expect to hear a great deal more along those lines in the next few months. What is being said is pretty clear: the Tories favour the wealthy and the elite, whilst Labour speaks for the 'ordinary' folk. But is it true?

It won't come as much of a surprise to learn that I think not. But I do think this gets at something which lies at the heart of the disagreement between these two parties, and perhaps constitutes the major fault line in British politics. It's all about fairness, and what fairness means. Allow me to attempt a discussion.

To start with, here are two statements which I think most people in the UK would agree with (If they weren't looking at them side by side):

It is only fair that the wealthy pay proportionately more tax than the poor.

Fairness means treating everyone the same.

Since I have put these statements side by side, I trust it's clear that they are quite contradictory. As soon as we have different rates of taxation, we are no longer 'treating everyone the same'. In fact, we are pretty clearly discriminating. For now, please assume that 'discrimination' is a value-neutral term: it may or may not be bad to discriminate. In fact, this lies at the heart of the argument. But what is clear is that either one of these statements is just false, or two different definitions of fairness are in operation here which are not compatible.

I would suggest that what those on the left tend to see as 'favouring the privileged' is in fact simply adherence to a view of fairness which would include the second of my two statements: treating everyone the same. Treating everyone the same means not 'picking on' one section of society and treating them differently. There is a long (and surprisingly radical) tradition in political theory standing behind this view, from Rousseau to Rawls. It does not just extend to taxation. This would also mean, for example, that 'positive discrimination' would be ruled out as unfair (as would what we might call 'negative discrimination'). Fairness means a level playing field, in the sense that the state at least does not apply different rules to different people.

I totally understand why this view could be seen by those on the left as 'unfair'. It leaves some people rich and others poor. But I support it. I support it because of its corollary in civil liberties: nobody is discriminated against, either positively (the government won't push a particular social agenda) or negatively. Laws are not passed which favour some of us over others. I think that's right. I also support it because I think it will generally lead to a state which does less: interferes less in our lives, makes less claims on our resources.

As an important aside, I do not think this view of fairness can be carried through with complete consistency, and that doesn't bother me. I think an instinct to treat everyone the same, coupled with the common sense to occasionally and in a limited way over-ride this instinct, is the ideal for government. So, I believe in limited 'progressive' taxation, I believe in reducing the tax burden on families with children etc. Consistency doesn't hugely bother me: it's unobtainable, and dull to boot.

It is worth noting one other thing. A party holding my view of fairness - everyone treated the same - can realistically claim to be protecting the interests of everyone. This is true even for those who currently would be better off under a left-ish government holding the other view of fairness. After all, why assume you will always be in that position? Poor today doesn't have to mean poor tomorrow. By contrast, the left-ish view of fairness inevitably makes the Labour party a sectional concern. They do not stand for everyone, but avowedly only for a particular section of society. I can't help thinking this is a bad thing in a national government.


  1. once more, an excellent post. Hmm. Vote Blanche!

  2. Cripes, inviting the hiking boots for a tour of the molevern hills here wouldn't you say? Bit harsh to call it a contradiction of fairness - the problem is more a confusion over what constitues the 'same' (in your eg, amount/proportion) and myriad complications besides - eg when are we *treating people' the same? Only the most naive rawlsian/rousseauian would say distributive justice is all that counts - as soon as anyone has earnt,  invested, lost, or inherited, then a naive rawlsian case could be made for proportional taxing, perhaps even for the purpose of redistribution, in order to restore distributive equality. To me, it treats all men as islands, with no received family or business, but as raw material as if each one came into the world on an equal material footing. Simply ain't so.

    I'd question the whole "left"-"right" spectrum - as if politics can be represented on a line. It's a lot more muddled than that, and I'm as confused as anyone how to vote.

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  4. Thanks, Jonathan!

    Hi Chris,

    I'm not sure you've followed me, which probably means I've not communicated well. I don't think the Labour party is contradicting fairness - I do think we need to recognise that there are different views of what fairness *is*, and face up to the fact that one cannot have one's cake and eat it. I also don't support Rawlsianism (to invent a word), naive or otherwise. All that veil of ignorance stuff is very dehumanising. But note my para in italics: I'm not trying to argue for a system, that of Rawls or anyone else, but for a political instinct. Note also that I'm making a case that goes beyond distributive justice - beyond economics altogether.

    I do think the left-right spectrum is still a useful analytic tool, although of course it's not the final word on political identity. In this case I was just using it incidentally.

    But hey, I'm not confused at all as how to vote. Maybe that means I just don't know what's going on, but there it is.

  5. Great stuff. Fairness is not the same as equality.

    The government should (strive to) treat everyone the same with it's resources of course. Only if the government has some (at least potentially) legitimate right to manage all the wealth and resources of the country can redistribution be fair. But private property rights matter, and the government isn't the only God-appointed 'level' of human governance.