Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Will Hutton’s “Them and Us” – Equality or fairness?

By Carlos Fortin

Since March I have been the convenor of a workshop on development policy and inequality in Latin America at the Chile 21 Foundation in Santiago. As an admirer of Will Hutton’s taut and incisive prose in his Observer columns, I was hoping his book Them and Us would allow an interesting comparison of inequality in Latin America and in Britain and help provide much needed conceptual clarification in this muddled field. I was not disappointed on the former score, but I was on the latter.

My problem stems from the fact that the central issue in the book is not equality but ‘fairness’.  Hutton defines this in the sense that individuals should be rewarded in proportion to the amount of discretionary effort they deploy to achieve socially useful results, provided they actually achieve them.  The aim is not to eliminate, or even reduce inequality, but to make access to the higher levels of income and living standards dependent on ‘talent, effort and virtue’. 

The theoretical bases for this position have been put forward as an alternative to mainstream equality theory by a group of contemporary social philosophers, and Hutton indeed cites some of them. In effect, however, his case for abandoning classical egalitarianism seems to rest on two considerably shakier points.
  1. We are born with a set of universal moral instincts, of ‘intuitive judgements of right and wrong that transcend history, religion or culture’ (Hutton 2010: 47). These can be discovered through experiments by behavioural psychologists in which individuals are asked to express judgments about hypothetical moral dilemmas. The answers, they claim, would indicate a preference for due ‘desert’ (‘reward or penalty… proportionate to the value or harm generated’ (Hutton 2010: 51)), not equality. Few moral philosophers seem to take this view seriously.
  2. People in an advanced capitalist society like Britain simply would not stand for egalitarianism. The only evidence he offers for this proposition is a 2008 opinion survey on British social attitudes that found that, while 76 per cent of respondents felt that the gap between those on low and high incomes was too large, only 34 per cent felt that the government should redistribute money from the wealthy to tackle inequality. There is however strong evidence that when questions are more specific, the answers are quite different. The European Social Survey 2008/2009 asked a question about state intervention in selected aspects of social policy. The results indicate that respondents felt that the responsibility in most aspects of social policy lay largely with the government.
Be that as it may, the transposition of Hutton’s analysis to the Latin American case is highly problematic, on at least two grounds:
  1. Because inequality levels are dramatically higher in Latin America. For example in Chile in 2009, the Gini coefficient  was 0.324 in the UK and 0.555 in Chile, whilst the ratio of income of the top to the bottom deciles was 1: 3.59 in the UK and 1: 46 in Chile.
  2. Chileans seem to strongly favour state intervention to reduce inequality. As I reported in a previous post, opinion polls show that a huge percentage of respondents support the notions that the State must implement strong policies to reduce income inequality among rich and poor and should be mainly responsible for ensuring the welfare of people and job creation.
Will Hutton certainly does not agree with Peter Mandelson’s relaxation about “people being filthy rich as long as they pay taxes” but his proposal to shift the aim of a good society from equality to “fairness” does go in that direction.

In the heyday of neoliberal policies in Latin America, centre-left analysts and politicians found it convenient to speak of equidad (fairness) instead of equality so as not to unduly offend the dominant ideology.

Things have changed since then. The basic document discussed in the 2010 Conference of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) bore the title “Time for Equality: Closing Gaps, Opening Trails”. The central proposals called for the introduction of structural reforms that would lead to a more equal primary income distribution; and for subsequent strong government redistributive interventions through taxation, transfers and the provision of social services to further reduce inequality.