Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Taking Inequality Seriously

A Lost Interview with Brian Barry

New Left Project
April 26, 2011

This interview is with the late political theorist, Brian Barry (1936-2009), and was conducted in 2006. The interview was initially carried out for the now defunct radical left website UK Watch, which in some ways was a predecessor of NLP. The interview focused on Barry’s last book, Why Social Justice Matters, a sustained critique of inequality in Britain and the US and the illusions which justify it. I lost the audio but recently found a transcript of most of our discussion, though it’s missing about 20 minutes of conversation. It reminded me that Barry had some very important things to say which, however cliched it may be to say, are certainly no less relevant today than they were when we met.

What is social justice?  What is its status relative to other values, such as liberty?

As far as I am concerned social justice is an organisation of the basic institutions of society that satisfy certain criteria and these are primarily that the allocation of opportunities, rights and resources should be equal unless there is some reason for them not be.  And that applies both within countries and internationally.  

And the primary reason why they shouldn’t be equal is if the inequalities come about as a result of choices for which people can be held fully responsible.  Now my view is that far too much has been made of this notion of responsibility as an excuse, if you like, for inequality because the conditions for responsibility are much tougher than is generally realised. Perhaps the core of the book is in the central chapters which are about the abuse of the notion of responsibility among politicians and in general among newspaper columnists and the like.  For example, children, to a very large extent cannot be held responsible for their performance in school and, therefore, in getting into higher education and so on.  We know that there are huge environmental influences all the way from the womb, nutrition and generally the material conditions – the absence of lead in the home and all that stuff – and that the advantages and disadvantages of children in relation to the resources that their parents can bring to bear, both in terms of language, upbringing skills and again material conditions are so enormously diverse that they increasingly skew the performance of children. I argue that the influence of genetics on any of this is extremely dubious and in fact unproven unless there actually identifiable neurological or physical defects, but they are at best completely residual compared to the enormous influence of the environment.  As we proceed into adulthood we can again say that choices very often have to be made from the alternatives that are available to people but if those alternatives are restricted by previous lack of opportunity, then merely to say ‘oh, you chose this rather than that’ rings rather than hollow and produces really rather little in the way of a justification of inequality. 

Equal opportunity is a corollary of the notion that responsibility cuts in only after we can establish that people first of all have worthwhile options, at the least, and that they have the capacity to exercise good judgement – which itself is hard to come by, perhaps hard to come by for everybody.  So there’s always a limitation to the extent to which people’s choices should determine their fate, that’s to say a bad decision at some point should not make people destitute.  The most that you can get out of the whole notion of responsibility is a certain degree of inequality. 

Now as far as the relation of social justice to other values is concerned, I would say that it is overriding in virtually all cases because the importance of establishing the right sort of inequality for a society is so massive that a lot of liberties, for example, that may be regarded as important, such as the freedom to send your child to a private to a private school, have to be curtailed. It is quite clear that if you can spend as much money as you like on your child then it’s going to have a big start in life, especially since of course the people who can afford to do that are already going to be giving their children a big start in life anyway.  Obviously there are limits imposed by liberty or, more generally, privacy.  For example that the number of words that a child is exposed to, the vocabulary it’s exposed to while it’s growing up, has a fantastic effect on how well children develop and how well they do in school but we can hardly say that parents with a big vocabulary cannot communicate using that vocabulary with their children.  So that’s an example of the kind of built-in advantage that you can’t do anything about.  On the other hand there are of course ways of reducing that advantage by providing really first class nursey and kindergarten education which would require small numbers of children and also that the teacher should be of good quality, which requires the whole status of such work to be jacked up. By those means you can do quite a bit to overcome that kind of disadvantage, so I think that the solution generally to the constraints of liberty is find other ways of reducing its advantageous impact. 

Similarly, the ability of parents to provide a separate room for children, computers, help and all that kind of thing can be offset to a great deal if the schools themselves are able to provide the equivalent.  And I think that means rather more than so called wrap-around education – I think it would be expensive and it would probably require maybe retired school teachers or other people of good will to come in and provide the sort of help and encouragement to children that middle class parents are able to provide.  Again, the idea that you can prevent middle class children receiving the treatment that currently advantages them is really impractical.  On the other hand, as I am suggesting, you can provide alternatives and also, of course, you reduce the impact of parental help by making less use of assessment based on the kind of work that children do at home.

Provide some more of the details of the relationship between inequalities and injustice in Britain today. 

As I’ve suggested, inequalities go all the way back to conception, or indeed before conception, because the health of the mother, especially, at the time of conception makes a difference. So one obvious way in which inequality manifests itself is in the inability even to pay for a healthy diet and particularly where we have deprived areas, especially housing estates out of town, then we know that the choice of food is less and it’s more expensive. So even where parents are aware what a healthy diet consists of – which I think is far more than what the propaganda suggests – they also know that the priority is to prevent their children from going hungry so they are forced to by food that will cause trouble for children and that’s part of, although only part of, the wave child obesity that we are seeing. 

Inequality has profound effects on the lives of people in many other ways.  Inequality, it’s been shown, creates stress, which itself shortens life in a variety of ways; it also creates ill health more generally and the differences between life expectancies between middle class and working class people are quite extraordinary, from about 75 to 67.  Now this is partly the result of material conditions, poor housing poor diet and so on, but it is also the result of inequality itself – the lower down the scale people are the worse they feel about themselves.  Also stress in the workplace is extremely deleterious and you find again that the less control people have over their working conditions the more liable they are to stress.  There’s a classic study of civil servants which showed that even after you take into account all the known normal risk factors, as you go down from the top to people down to the clerical grade – we’re not talking about people who are poor or oppressed in the normal way – you get a systematic increase in especially coronary heart disease but more generally in ill health and earlier death.  If it works even in a context like that we can see how enormous that effect has to be across the whole society. 

People who don’t accept your view about the intrinsic badness of much inequality may nonetheless be persuaded by this kind of evidence that inequality needs to be reduced because of its harmful effects. You discuss a range of other ‘pathologies of inequality’ – what are some of the most significant?

The pathologies of inequality are very many and various.  They, as I’ve already said, lead to differences in status and self-perception which are important and sources of stress and unhappiness. We know for every society that relative happiness goes up as you ascend the income scale, or, when you have a racist society, as you switch from those subject to racism to those who either benefit or perpetrate it. But also as inequality increases, as it has in Britain (and in most countries but in Britain most remarkably) from the 1980s, you also get an increasing gap between the incomes people have and the aspirations that they have, which is itself a form of unhappiness and leads to the increasing use credit, going into debt, in order to try to bridge the gap.  These two phenomena which are leading now to a sharp increase in bankruptcies are a direct effect of the increase in inequality. 

Another effect of inequality which has been really pretty well established internationally is the relationship between inequality and crime.  The more that you have a group of people who can see no prospects of making a decent living by honest means, the more that disadvantage among them is perpetuated, then the more crime you tend to have and we’ve certainly seen this in Britain.  Now, another important pathology of inequality, which itself makes inequality much harder to get rid of, is the political power that money provides people with.  We’ve obviously seen some gross examples of that recently in the cash-for-peerages business but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The important thing is that by lobbying businesses can get policies that they want – for example, the code for reducing eliminating advertising of junk foods aimed at children has been watered down by an enormous number of negotiations with the firms affected but almost none with nutritionists, the kind of people who would be against it.  Very rich people also have a very large influence on policy by the need for parties to get donations.  You can see this in the Labour party because as its membership base has declined and as unions have become increasingly reluctant to contribute then rich people are the only resource to fill the gap and so both major parties now are heavily dependent on contributions, including individual contributions.  If you didn’t have that degree of inequality then obviously you wouldn’t get this kind of perversion of the democratic process in which it really is almost more that one pound is equivalent to one vote rather than each person has a vote.

What are your proposals for egalitarian change?

It’s fairly clear of course that taxation has to play a large part in this.  The fact that people who are making above average salaries but not a great deal above are paying 40% of their incomes in taxes while someone making a million a year is making the same amount clearly means that nothing’s being done to address inequality.  The situation with respect to wealth is even worse.  The Labour government has done absolutely nothing to close any of the loopholes that were created by the Conservatives and indeed before that by ingenious tax lawyers.  The largest hole that has been driven through was the extension of immunity to taxation to land which means that all you have to do if you want pass on money without any kind of restrictions is to buy land.  Similarly, there are all kinds of rackets involving trusts whereby grandparents pass money on to their grandchildren, for example.  And it’s really amazing the degree of fuss that’s been made about the modest changes to that introduced by the Chancellor in the last budget which don’t do anything to eliminate this, they merely curtail some of the further ways of piling up the money. 

I think that in the long run inequalities of wealth may be more pathological than inequalities of income, certainly in terms of the perversion of the electoral process but also in terms of opportunity. It’s been shown that the possession of wealth by parents who are prepared to pass it on in one form or another to their children makes an extraordinary difference to opportunities – that children of wealthy parents can take risks, for example, that no bank would fund in order to try starting up small businesses or undergo training that may not have high returns until the future, such as training to be a barrister.  So I think that the solution to this, or at least the beginnings of a solution to this, is a wealth tax, a tax on actual wealth.  This is not a question of just taxing the kind of wealth that yields an income but even more importantly taxing the kinds of wealth that don’t produce an income.  Currently you can have as much wealth as you like, but provided it’s invested in pictures and houses and so on you don’t pay income tax on it – you may eventually pay capital gains tax on it but this is at a laughably low rate – whereas a wealth tax would take account of all sources of wealth and as far as feasibility is concerned it would be possible to introduce it over a number of years starting with quite high numbers, say five million, and then bringing it down as more and more records are compiled.  Now the problem with wealth tax is that it’s very hard for one country to get much out of line with the others and about the highest running in western Europe is two percent.  The problem with two percent is of course it’s fairly easy to beat two percent with the increase in your wealth so therefore the most it can do is hold down the amount of wealth that people have. 

Now I think that if inequality of wealth is as important is as important as I maintain it is it would be worth losing some rich people in order to actually have a wealth tax that would start cutting into inequality of wealth.  At the other end you can do something on the lines of the so-called ‘baby bond’ but much more ambitious, and proposals have been made for children at the age of say eighteen to have access to serious sums of money.  This of course would have to be raised by toughening death duties enormously as well as a wealth tax.  And this would make some difference by providing some of these advantages to children whose parents can’t provide them with the opportunities that wealth provides.  Although we have to remember that for many purposes they would still simply lag behind because if everybody gets this, which is the normal idea – that it’s a gesture of social solidarity – it will still leave the middle class parents ahead.  So I think the problem of unequal wealth is an extremely difficult one, an extremely intractable one, and I don’t think that anybody yet has a handle on it.

You also support the more radical measure of an unconditional basic income. Could you explain this proposal and why you favour it?

I think that once you think through the alternatives you realise that moving towards an income adequate to live on for everybody, that is given to all the citizens or permanent residents of a country and eventually should be extended across the world, is the only way of dealing with inequality.  People like Polly Toynbee who think their hearts are in the right place are simply barking up the wrong tree in thinking that pushing up wages is anything like enough to solve the problems of poverty, let alone inequality.  In the end we have to face it that in contemporary societies where unskilled labour is not required a great deal then many people will not be able to provide a great deal of value added to employers.  However much you fiddle around with income supplements and so on you are still going to find that you will have a lot of poor people.  Now we have in this country an enormous amount of child poverty and there are proposals to try to halve this or even eliminate it by some date long in the future.  The fact is that that could be done tomorrow if we provided people with enough income to live on themselves and a realistic amount of income for children.  Obviously this would not be the same amount as an adult but it would be scaled and if you just give people the money then you simply abolish child poverty.  Now, as with a wealth tax, this would take some time – I think the introduction of a basic income would have to be phased in because it would have many knock-on effects on the institutions of a society but it would be feasible to introduce it in stages.  In the earlier stages you would have to keep all the apparatus that we already have and simply knock the basic income off but even that could make a big difference. 

In the case of pensions there is a simple answer which is simply to provide enough for people to live on.  Means testing, which is what has obsessed Gordon Brown and has indeed reduced poverty to some extent, has many disadvantages from the point of producing a society of equal respect and to the greatest degree possible equal power.  When people talk about the culture of dependency they don’t actually mean people who have independent means or indeed people who have unconditionally available incomes.  It’s dependency on means tested benefits that creates the problems…

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