Three types of equality

As we saw in my previous post, G.A. Cohen’s aim in his book Why Not Socialism? is to consider two questions: is socialism desirable? And: is it feasible?

Before those questions can be addressed, however, it is necessary to define what one means by “socialism”. For Cohen it is not a question of government ownership or central planning: rather, he starts from a consideration of equality of opportunity, of which he identifies three levels.

First, bourgeois equality of opportunity. This involves the removal of “status restrictions, both formal and informal, on life chances”. Serfdom and slavery are examples of “formal” restrictions; racial prejudice is an example of an “informal” restriction. Bourgeois equality of opportunity removes these restrictions (to a greater or lesser degree).

Second, left-liberal equality of opportunity. This seeks to remove social restrictions on opportunity: “those circumstances of birth and upbringing that constrain not by assigning an inferior status to their victims, but by nevertheless causing them to labour and live under substantial disadvantages”. The aim is to ensure that people’s life chances are “determined by their native talent and their choices” rather than by their social backgrounds, through initiatives such as “head-start” education programmes for those from deprived backgrounds.

The third level of equality of opportunity is what Cohen calls socialist equality of opportunity. This “treats the inequality that arises out of native differences as a further injustice”, since differences in native abilities is as unchosen as differences in social background. “When socialist equality of opportunity prevails, differences of outcome reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice, not differences in natural and social capacities and powers”. What this means in practice is, for example, in everyone being paid the same hourly rate for their work, so that differences in income reflect nothing more than different tastes for the time spent working.

To be honest, I feel pretty uncomfortable with this concept. I’m not sure that absolute equality of this nature – as opposed to avoiding extremes of inequality – is what we should be heading towards. I found these sections of Cohen’s book the most difficult and least convincing. Perhaps that just means I’m a “left-liberal” rather than a “socialist”, in Cohen’s terms.


8 thoughts on “Three types of equality”

  1. Moving beyond a more theoretical presentation of the choices, how would these proposals actually work in practice? At first glance the implementation of the first model seems relatively straightforward.

    The socialist model seems completely unworkable. How on earth would it create a fair and effective division of labour? How would it encourage enterprise? Who would choose to do the dangerous jobs that society relies upon? What happens when everyone wants to be a be a wine taster, while the society runs out of dustmen? Wouldn’t we all be worse off if the talents and abilities of a person were less of a factor in their ability to occupy a certain job? Would the public be served if excellence in the serving of the customer was not rewarded, and failure to serve the customer was not penalized? Such a system would be grossly inefficient, and disincentivize excellence throughout.

    Turning to the left-liberal model serious questions about workability remain. Let’s look at a meritocratic system, based upon the first pattern of equality. Such a meritocratic system will benefit children from middle class and professional homes, but will not help children from working class and welfare class homes in anything like the same way. Even when the exact same opportunities are opened up to such children, middle class and professional class children are already off to a huge head start. They are more likely to come from stable families, they are more likely to have books at home, access to technology, exposure to a far greater range of vocabulary from an early age, a much, much greater amount of parental encouragement, a peer group that is more likely to value hard work and academic achievement, role models of academic achievement in their parents, a more limited use of TV, etc., etc. The figures concerning the difference that these aspects of family culture make are remarkable. The average working class or welfare kid doesn’t stand much of a chance in such a system, which is why many of the policies associated with meritocracy are – not without a measure of justification – dismissed as elitist.

    However, although the limitations of a purely meritocratic system are obvious, a way to avoid them is not. The goal of ensuring that people’s life chances are ‘determined by their natural talent and their choices’ is laudable, but it is far too individualistic to work well in practice. Our most important choices in life are often not aimed at improving our own life chances, but at improving the life choices of those we are related to. The choice that a woman makes to stay at home to give her children a head-start, the choice that my parents made to raise us without a TV, the choice that the husband makes to be faithful for the sake of his wife and children, the choice that the parents make to take an active interest in their child’s education, and to sacrifice time and money to support it: these are all examples of such choices. Such a left-liberal approach to equality systematically disincentivizes such self-sacrificial choices as freedom and opportunity comes to be regarded less as something that we must create by personal sacrifice for those we love, and more as accidents of birth and as things that we depend upon government to provide for us where they are absent.

    I look back on the history of my family over the past century and I see that each generation has tended to enjoy much more freedom and opportunity than the generations that preceded, moving from humble beginnings, largely on account of the choices that were made along the line by people who believed strongly that social mobility was about valuing certain virtues (family stability being chief among these) and sacrificing for the sake of one’s children. In the absence of such a family culture and tradition, it is unlikely that our family would have achieved as much. Is there any way in which we can simply bypass the formation and transmission of family character as a basis for social opportunity and simply give it to people on a plate?

    There is also the danger that we think of social background as something that is merely foisted upon people from the outside. Social background, although in many respects unchosen, also involves significant patterns of choices, which create and sustain it. These choices generally follow intergenerational patterns too. There are certain patterns of choices that tend to lead to poverty and other patterns of choices that tend to raise people out of poverty. My point is that choices vs. social background is a very simplistic construction, as there is substantial overlap between the two categories. Social mobility often depends less upon the rung of the ladder that you start from as it does upon the values and habits of choice that you begin with.

    ‘Natural talent’ is also overrated as something that determines people’s measure of success (David Shenk’s ‘The Genius in All of Us’ is a good recent book on this). What many call ‘natural talent’ is merely the product of very prolonged exposure to highly stimulating environments and the habitual use of forms of ‘deliberate practice’ rather than ordinary practice. Invoking natural talent is often a way that we excuse our failure to devote the effort to realize our potential, or seek to understand the brilliance of those for whom particular talents were raised to an extremely high level by means of an exceedingly stimulating environment. My point, once again, is that ‘natural talent’ overlaps considerably with social background. Choices, talent and social background form a nexus. You can’t have talent without making certain choices, and social background is also created and sustained by choices, and in turn proves a fertile ground for talent.

    Rather than treating the disadvantaged character of many children merely as a matter of the blind lottery of birth into economic inequality I think that we need to take more seriously the degree to which lasting improvement in social background depends upon certain habits of choice. The problem is that many attempts to secure equality of opportunity are not sufficiently focused on the task of changing people’s culture as the basis for social mobility. How are social backgrounds formed and sustained? How is it that certain underprivileged groups (such as Indian immigrants in the UK) demonstrate a high degree of social mobility in our society, while others stagnate (the white underclass being a great example)? A focus on economic condition can disguise the deeper cultural issues that are in play in the success of certain communities (in the case of Indian immigrants, a culture of enterprise, a valuing of academic achievement, stable families, strong communities and a social stigma on practices that undermine these things). Economic factors are certainly important, but they are nowhere near as significant in determining opportunity than other cultural issues can be.

    Moving on, how is the government going to ensure that the child of a single mother on welfare in a poor housing estate, who failed her GSCEs, with a limited vocabulary and with the latest in a succession of live-in boyfriends has the same opportunities as a child raised in a stable home, with university graduates for parents, a large library, limited access to TV and a highly stimulating atmosphere in the home? Attempts at left-liberal equality of opportunity all too often involve handicapping those from backgrounds were parents have sacrificed to give their children greater opportunities and picking up the slack for parents who haven’t bothered. In the process family cultures that foster excellence are held back, while cultures that undermine it receive the benefits. The incentives are backwards.

    Furthermore, it is hard to see how one can secure such equality without an intolerable degree of government intrusion. The probable result would be that of transferring the task of raising the nation’s children even more into the hands of government, taking certain decisions out of the hands of good parents, and a move towards a general mediocrity. Of course, in many areas such a move is already underway.

    I do not pretend to have answers here. My main concern is that we recognize the importance of the habitual choices that form the fabric of cultures that breed success and seek to encourage these, to privilege excellence wherever it is found and disincentivize practices that undermine it. Parents who make good decisions for their children should experience the benefits by seeing their children enjoy a head start over the children of parents who did not, controversial as this might seem. Somehow we need to encourage people to take those choices and develop the habits that liberate and empower people around them – especially children – and this will mean disincentivizing and/or restoring a social stigma to certain practices (such as sexual promiscuity) that perpetuate negative cultural and generational cycles. The left-liberal approach’s concern with ensuring that no child is disadvantaged can have the counter-intentional effect of encouraging the growth of dysfunctional cultural patterns by subsidizing choices that severely curtail the opportunities of children.

  2. Alastair: just to pick up on a few points:

    1. Workability: What you are saying is that we have no effective mechanism by which “socialist equality of opportunity” could be sustained, certainly without massive governmental intervention that effectively eliminated freedom. Cohen would agree: he’d just want to add that we don’t know for certain that such a mechanism is impossible.

    2. I don’t think it is so easy to separate economic from “other cultural issues”. Why is there a “white underclass” (a term which has a somewhat self-fulfilling nature – see how it probably encouraged metropolitan Labour politicians to distance themselves from traditional supporters, encouraging the rise of the BNP)? Well, the white working class has undergone two huge economic and cultural dislocations in the past 250 years: the first as traditional patterns of life were destroyed by industrialisation and the move from countryside to urban slums, the second as the patterns of life that had been put together in the wake of industrialisation were destroyed by de-industrialisation. This is not merely a matter of personal or familial choices. Indeed, people whose families have lived through those processes could be forgiven for thinking those choices are of little value, because sooner or later social and economic forces beyond your control are going to pull the carpet from under your feet – again.

    3. As I hope to show in my next post, Cohen is absolutely concerned with the ethical choices people make rather than with imposing governmental solutions. Your family history shows the power of decisions made by parents for their children – that is, within relationships that are based on self-sacrifice and putting others’ interests first without being concerned for personal, reciprocal reward. It is a profoundly non-market success within a market economy. I think what Cohen means by “socialism” is the decision to treat all people as “family” in this way, rather than an attempt to impose a masterplan on society. But I don’t want to pre-empt my next post too much…

  3. C’mon, disagree boldly! ‘Socialist equality’ isn’t slightly discomforting; it is injustice on a grand scale, and a terror to human dignity. It insults people who spend their whole lives learning a trade or a skill, it provides no lessons or incentives to those beginning that they can improve, and it denies the possibility that consumers may have their own ‘tastes and choices’ by placing the workers’ own decisions above those of anyone else in the transaction. (I keep wanting to say I’m over-stating my view here, but in all honesty, I think I might have under-stated it somewhat.)

    The idea of a more moderate ‘equality of opportunity’, along the ‘left-liberal’ scheme, is one I can well live with as an ideal: of course we want everyone to have a fair shake. But I do find a problem with the way it ends up working out.

    Because we are too tempted to turn ‘getting a fair shake’ into an outcome which we can measure and twiddle. So we get targets for how many young people should go to university, for how many children should go through SureStart centres, all that kind of thing. And once we’ve made that mistake, we end up back at a form of the socialist version of equality.

  4. Phil: one might say it insults those who spend their lives learning a trade or skill that they might do so only for the opportunity of making money, rather than helping others or deriving personal satisfaction or enjoyment from what they do.

    It’s not that people are not to be incentivised for what they do: it’s about asking what it would look like if what incentivised people was the opportunity to benefit others rather than the opportunity to get something of equivalent value in return. That is not entirely absent from the world as we know it: as someone has pointed out, doctors and pastors are two examples of people who get paid for doing what they’d probably do unpaid. And modern HR professionals are becoming acutely aware of how unmotivating, of how poor an incentive, money really is for employees. (You think people only want to improve their abilities in their work so that they get paid more?)

  5. one might say it insults those who spend their lives learning a trade or skill that they might do so only for the opportunity of making money

    Not ‘only’. But as a factor? Absolutely. To deny the existence of money as a factor, and for many people as a major factor, is so intensely bourgeois I can’t understand why it takes such a location in a socialist schema. But it sounds like you do kind of accept that money is a factor for most people, and are falling back on the ‘defence’ of socialism as plausible only if humanity experienced a total personality transplant from a beehive.

    Still, since your opinion of doctors is that they’d do it even without pay, I guess your worries about NHS budget cuts are unfounded, eh? 😉 We can lose a heck of a lot of that budget with no damage to public services.

  6. Phil: what I was responding to was the suggestion that to remove financial rewards is to leave people without any incentive.

    Money is undoubtedly an incentive and motivation for people, but in most cases I’d suggest it’s only such as a proxy for what really motivates them: to do interesting and enjoyable things, to provide a home for their family, that sort of thing. When we come across people who seem to be motivated solely or mainly by money (*waves at contestants on The Apprentice*), I’d say most of us tend to find that a little repellent.

    And it is unquestionably the case that money is not the motivator that it is often assumed to be. Ask any HR professional: once people have reached a basic level of satisfaction with their income, money is no longer an effective way to motivate them. Motivation comes from other sources. (Check out this video for an interesting presentation of this issue.)

    So it’s not completely beyond the bounds of possibility that we could find ways to incentivise and motivate people without a financial element. That said, attempts to do so (hello, 1960s Cuba!) have been a miserable failure.

    There’s an interesting discussion on the Wiki entry for Cohen concerning the “incentivising productive people” argument for tax cuts etc.:

    Consider, said Cohen, the argument that parents ought to pay a kidnapper’s ransom, because otherwise the kidnapper would not return their child: this argument can be innocently put forward by anyone – except the kidnapper, who (though unlikely to be bothered by that) is on a different footing to anyone else since he is talking about himself and what he will do, rather than predicting someone else’s action.

    The incentives argument has in common with the kidnapper argument that it cannot without oddity be used in the first-person case. It fails “the interpersonal test”, which requires of a moral justification that the identity of anyone proposing it be irrelevant. As a policy, economic incentivising is a pragmatic compromise, not a principle of justice, and talented people who hold out for greater rewards instead of lending their talents to a higher equal distribution, are in fact acting against justice. “The flesh may be weak, but one should not make a principle out of that,” said Cohen.

  7. I’m having a hard time even following this discussion (maybe one has to be from the UK to really understand the terms of the debate). I get quite confused from the get-go when “socialism” is defined as not a question of government ownership or central planning. If “socialism” does not mean “a centrally-planned economy based on state ownership of the means of production,” then I no longer know what the discussion is about. (Of course, I have always regarded Gaitskell’s dictum that “Socialism is about equality” as, in essence, an abandoment of socialism itself.)

    But even if we ignore that and regard the discussion as simply being about equality, I think it has to be said quite strongly that one cannot simply posit “equality” as the highest good — or as necessarily or intrinsically “good” at all. The plain fact of the matter is that human beings are not equal to one another and were not created nor intended to be such. Men are not equal to women; children are not equal to adults; and human beings in general are not equal to one another in their abilities, their intelligence, their wisdom, their character, or their morals. Given that, why one should ever expect that economic opportunities or results would be equal is beyond me. And there is certainly no basis for thinking that economic inequality is ipso facto unjust.

    Of course, there is a sense in which all human beings are equal, and ought to be treated as such. But it takes a good bit of theological and/or philosophical hard work to draw out just what that meaningful sense of “equality” is [hard work which I am certainly not going to do right here in the combox]. And when you have done that hard work, you find that the notion of human equality that you are left with will not at all support the kind of “equality” that socialists think is so important.

    Socialism may be about “equality,” but politics ought to be about justice in the real world the way things really are — where “equality” is an abstraction and inequality abounds along almost every dimension. In such a world (the only one we have) justice, far more often than not, will result in unequal outcomes; and equal outcomes, far more often than not, will be unjust ones.

    Besides, what Alastair Roberts said — in his incisive comments on this and all the other posts.

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