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POLITICAL ECONOMY/ No equality in opportunity

February Mon 08, 2010

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Traditional Toryism justified social inequality. Old Labour believed in equality of outcomes. But today both parties have eschewed their earlier approaches and aspire instead to "equality of opportunity". For Gordon Brown, it is "the whole of social justice"; indeed equalising opportunity has captured progressive thinking and legislation for the last 30 years.

 

However, as the report by the National Equality Panel published today makes clear, this approach has failed and needs to be radically called into question. Inequality has risen, not fallen. Over those three decades the net income ratio of the top 10% to the bottom 10% has risen by more than a quarter. Governments have tended to tackle income at the edges with minor acts of benefit increase, but the real unaddressed agenda is wealth and assets, and here the ratio is truly stupendous: the total household wealth of the richest 10% is virtually 100 times that of the poorest 10%. One can only conclude that equality of opportunity is an ¬inadequate and incoherent approach.

 

Why inadequate? Primarily, because it will not benefit most people. By definition, the winners in life are few, the losers several, and the middle the majority. Those who fail to win in the socioeconomic race still make a crucial contribution in doing mundane but necessary jobs. They, as much as the winners, deserve a fulfilling life in accordance with their capacities. But the ¬rhetoric of egalitarian opportunity means that ¬everyone who doesn't succeed is defined as a failure. Such contempt ¬reinforces and repeats inequality.

 

Why incoherent? Because where opportunity displaces outcome, the accident of birth is treated as if it was entirely analogous to the accident of race or gender. But it is not. Society and government can refuse race or gender prejudice simply by not being prejudicial. But class is not so easy: one can never entirely extract people from their ancestry and upbringing.

 

These problems reveal a yet deeper incoherence. Equality of opportunity is advanced by those who advocate a meritocracy. But no account of what is objectively valuable for a society based on merit is ever offered. Instead the victors of such social competitions often have no inherent social values at all – look at the vast rewards reaped by the traders in socially useless banks. Equality of opportunity is thus wholly synonymous with a market without morals and a meritocracy without merit.

 

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