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Privilege, principle and the little prince

July 24, 2013 by · 8 Comments
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Tonight on Moral Maze we are using the occasion of the Royal birth as a hook for a discussion about unequal life chances for children. Until the panel meets before the programme I am never quite sure what my lines of argument will be, but here are my suitably provocative starting points.

Burden of proof:

For most of human existence we lived in reasonably egalitarian tribes. Children are born free of sin or error. It is therefore more incumbent on those who seek to defend policies and practices which lead to unequal life chances to justify them than it is for those who want greater equality to justify remedial actions.

Can’t buy me love:

Putting to one side genetic and prenatal differences, unequal life chances are the result of the interaction of material resources (income, wealth, networks) and the attention, confidence and security families provide children. It is, of course, a generalisation but families with more of the first set of assets tend for a various reasons to be more able to provide the second set as well. Opponents of the idea of equal opportunities often point to the second set of factors and suggest either that greater equality is impossible or that meritocrats want to take away the right of parents to do the best for their children. However, policies to reduce the first set of advantages do not impinge on the freedom to exploit the second. Indeed, it might be better if the advantages middle class parents sought to bestow were more to do with self confidence and character development than mortgage deposits and school fees.

The least worst option:

The merits of various interventions to reduce inequality of opportunity should be debated on a case by case basis. However, there is no evidence that societies which work hard to reduce inequalities in life chances are aggregately either less ‘free’ or less economically successful than those which do not.

A false dichotomy:

The debate between egalitarianism (equality of outcome) and meritocracy (equality of opportunity) is in practice a distraction. More equal societies are also more socially mobile, if for no other reason that the rungs in the social ladder are less far apart.

Egalitarians are meritocrats who mean it.

However, we live in a society in which there is both an apparent consensus that children should enjoy broadly equal life chances alongside a fierce resistance to most redistributive measures.

This intellectual and moral confusion – not only displayed but encouraged by politicians – is so profound that it amounts to a reprehensible act of collective disingenuousness. If we really have little or no commitment to measures to equalise children’s opportunities, we should stop being so pious and instead glory in living in a society in which the life chances of the new prince and a new born baby of unemployed parents in Barnsley are a million miles apart.



Freedom left, fairness right?

March 13, 2013 by · 3 Comments
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Tonight on Moral Maze we are discussing benefit reforms and more specifically whether – as a number of bishops have argued - the poorest in society should be protected from austerity. Delving into the debate I noticed an interesting inversion.

Arguments over policy tend to revolve around three broad criteria; fairness, freedom and efficiency. Broadly we associates concern about fairness with the left, about freedom with the right, while the question of ‘what works’ is contested by both (albeit often tendentiously).

When it comes to how the state treats the poorest the reference points change. Often the strongest arguments made by those supporting a cut in real terms benefits levels are made in terms of fairness: it is not fair either to taxpayers or to the working poor that those who are not in work are able to maintain their income at the expense of the rest of us and in contrast to many workers who are suffering failing living standards.

Conversely, the case for maintaining a basic living standard for all people can be made in terms of the freedom of people to be able to subsist (for this is all it is) despite the fact that they might not choose or be able to live the kinds of lives of which we approve. From this perspective it is better that we accept the small moral hazard of some people choosing to live fecklessly on benefits than that we live in a state where people are made utterly destitute unless they are willing to become wage slaves.

Of course, these arguments aren’t absolute. Few benefit cutters think the unemployed should be left without any income at all, while the supporters of some kind of basic income recognise that for reasons of practicality and fairness it is bound to be quite modest. Therefore, although I am a supporter of welfare conditionality (as long as it involves genuine support as well as threat) I oppose this benefit cut for a variety of general and specific reasons.

First, on grounds of fairness we need to remember that the recent rise in benefit levels in comparison to average wages is a shallow and short lived phenomenon. As the reliably robust and provocative Jonathan Portes has pointed out, since 1979 the basic level of unemployment benefit/Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) has fallen from 22% of average earnings to 15%. If a group of people have been losing out steadily for twenty five years it seems perverse to say it is unfair that they have clawed back a fraction of those losses in the last three years.

Second, the very level of JSA (to focus on one benefit) at £56 for 18-24 year olds and £71 for over 25 year olds seems to defy the idea that virtually anyone would choose to live on them. Of course, most people on JSA get other payments – such as housing benefit – but these are to pay for specific costs. No one on benefits can afford anything but the most basic of lifestyles (and even that is threatened when unexpected costs – like the need to replace a cooker, or buy a school uniform – kick in).

Third, more generally, the evidence that small changes in already modest benefits levels have an impact on work incentives is very limited (indeed some people argue the evidence goes the other way). This reduces the power of both the moral hazard and fairness to tax payers’ arguments and undermines the case that decent benefit levels are inimical to economic efficiency.

Fourth, I do not believe, especially in economic hard times, that the responsibility for people facing either penury on benefits, or virtual penury on minimum wages, lies primarily with the poor individual. A reason why judges have some discretion in sentencing is to take extenuating circumstances into account. If people are seen to be totally responsible for the bad choices they make we feel more justified in denying their freedom. But do we really believe that in most cases it is the unemployed who are most responsible for the unenviable economic circumstances they face? If not shouldn’t we defend them having the marginally greater dignity/freedom resulting from a slightly higher unemployed or in-work benefit entitlement?

Given that I am up against Melanie Phillips and Michael Portillo it is bound to be a very lively debate; so why not tune in tonight at 8.00 on Radio 4?


For goodness sake, just be selfish !

February 21, 2013 by · 11 Comments
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Among the many great maxims of the 17th century French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld is this: ‘Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue’. I lack Francois’ turn of phrase but here is my thought for the day:

‘Shame provokes vice as much as it protects virtue’.

Here are three ways being ashamed makes us behave badly:

The ‘What the hell effect’:

As Dan Ariely describes in his latest book and Animate, when faced with temptation most people most of the time weigh up the benefits of sinning with the bad feeling that results. But there comes a point, when people have erred several times, that the possibility of feeling good about oneself diminishes. This tilts the balance (vice is still attractive but virtue feels unattainable). As Ariely explains, the reason Catholic confession has a measurable and benign impact is that it enables people to wipe the slate making the maintenance of virtue (and its loss) salient again.

It’s the cover up that kills you:

From Richard Nixon to Chris Huhne it is not the shameful act but the attempt to avoid being shamed that leads to the greater vice. Over and over again it is what we do to avoid admitting self-interested misbehavior that leads us completely to  abandon our moral compass.

Defending the vice by damning the world

Last night’s Moral Maze was on private education and it’s worth a listen. Quite late on an important philosophical division emerges between the champions of independent schools.

When I asked former St Pauls’ School high master Martin Stephen whether there would be private schools in a perfect world he said words to the effect of; ‘no, private schools are necessary because of the weakness of the state system’. As a free market libertarian Michael Portillo’s disagreed, for him the perfect world is the one with the greatest freedom including the freedom of parents to spend their money on buying the best education for their children (in fact, in Michael’s perfect world there are no state schools).

But, back to Martin Stephen’s rationale: Last night all those who defended the morality of private education (including Michael P) did so by, in one way or another, denigrating the state system.

I think private schools damage society in a number of ways (increasing inter-generational inequality, denying state schools access to pupils and parents who could be great assets), but arguably the worst effect comes from the apparent need for the defenders of the independent sector – in order to justify their decision to try to give their own children an advantage – constantly to run down the state sector thus contributing to the well-attested and abiding myth of decline which afflicts educational discourse.

A very high proportion of national journalists and columnists were privately educated and/or privately educate their own children, so the views of the fewer than 8% of parents who make the choice to go private are massively disproportionately represented in the media. .

Today at the RSA we have Stewart Lansley speaking to his book ‘The cost of inequality’ which persuasively argues that extreme inequality is not only problematic for society (the thesis of The Spirit Level) but also for the economy itself. The policies which saw inequality grow so starkly (particularly in the US and UK) were based on an economic ideology which is now largely discredited. Arguably, this ideology proved to be so attractive to those in power precisely because it enabled the rich not only to get rich but to argue that in doing so they were benefitting the whole of society. The damage was done less by individuals being greedy, which on its own may benefit the individuals a bit and harm the poor a little, than by the need to legitimate greed by propagating a set of ideas and policies which subsequently proved disastrous for everyone but the very rich.

As a tolerant kind of guy and also one who has himself virtually no moral foundation for self-righteousness, I would find it unattractive, but not in any way intolerable, for fellow citizens to say they were choosing private education simply because they wanted to give their children a social advantage over other children or that they were opposed to higher taxes and restrictions on bonuses for entirely self-interested reasons.

That people make choices we don’t approve of is a price of freedom that is well worth paying, even if those choices have small adverse effects on everyone else. Indeed to accept that people will often act in their own interests regardless of the impact on wider society and to tolerate this while at the same time promoting social values which encourage wider social responsibility is a pretty good balance of the virtues of freedom and justice. The message is ‘if you choose to put self-interest first, it is better to admit it than to peddle false ideas and destructive myths to hide your motives’.

As David Runciman argued brilliantly a few years ago, personal hypocrisy (doing things which don’t accord with your view of how the world is and should be) is in its impact a much lesser vice than political hypocrisy (altering your view of how the world is and should be to serve your self-interest).



Keep taking the medicine

November 28, 2012 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

I am just off to the Moral Maze to take a position on whether, in some cases, NHS treatment should be conditional on people changing their life style. ‘Ah, but which position will you take?’ I hear my reader say.

I am against the two women respectively from the BMA and Patient Concern and on the side of the two men from the Institute of Economic Affairs and the National Obesity Forum; yes the NHS should in some cases make treatment conditional on patients offering their own contribution to getting healthier. Although one of the joys of Moral Maze is that one rarely ends up in exactly the same position that one starts, my position starts from three grounds:

The principle of conditionality applies in many other areas of welfare – why should health be an exception?

Public sector austerity means that rationing is inevitable. Isn’t it both appropriate and just that one criterion is the willingness of those patients who are able to work with the health service to achieve a successful outcome do so.

It is more progressive to see public services not as things that are delivered but as reciprocal relationships. But you won’t develop grown up relationships if there is ultimately no sanction for either party if they abuse that relationship. Just as patients should have rights of redress for poor treatment and care so health professionals should have some scope, within clear parameters, to make professional judgements about whether a patient’s behaviour makes treatment more or less likely to succeed, and on that basis they whether they should be apriority for health care.

I can immediately see many of the objections to this argument (inequality in income and other personal assets providing the basis for many) but I won’t rehearse them as they will no doubt be very well made by guests and panellists on the programme (it’s on Radio 4 at 8pm).

The key point I want to try to get across is that the case for conditionality is not one which has to imply intolerance or hostility to strong public services. Indeed the reverse, it can also reflect a deeper ambition for public services – not just helping people with problems but enabling them to be better able to meet their own needs.

Mind you, having said all this I will probably be distracted as my thoughts keep drifting to how the amazing West Bromwich Albion team is doing at Swansea City. And if we win and in celebration I pull a muscle punching the air I will feel my GP is totally justified in telling me to buy some aspirin and learn to be more sensible next time.


Institutional frailty, West Bromwich Albion and a glass box

October 24, 2012 by · 10 Comments
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Tonight on Moral Maze we are discussing institutions and their declining authority. Part of the background is, of course, the Savile affair and it will be difficult not to anticipate the atmosphere at Broadcasting House with a certain voyeuristic frisson. But, while Savile presents an extreme example, the loss of authority and confidence in institutions is a much wider phenomenon.

Indeed, the decline in hierarchical authority, which provides the normative skeleton of institutions, was a major theme of my annual lecture. In this I suggested that the capacity to tackle tough problems in society had been sapped by the decline of two of three sources of power – hierarchy and solidarity – and the consequent over extension of the third – individualism. The question for tonight is whether this sapping of institutional authority should be seen primarily as the consequence of the failings of those institutions, and therefore in essence a necessary and progressive process, or as evidence of a baleful loss of deference to authority and respect for tradition in a society readily willing to tear down things of value but much less able to build new ones.

This opens up a question that was implicit but unanswered in both my annual lecture and the theories which informed it. Has individualism become predominant because of extrinsic factors which have led the decline of institutions and solidarities, or is it individualism itself which is responsible for that decline? The structure of this conundrum can be illustrated through a footballing metaphor; can Manchester City’s defeat of West Brom on Saturday most usefully be understood in terms of the former’s strengths, the latter’s weaknesses or the interaction between the two? As this suggests, there is a real and important distinction here, but rarely a clear conceptual dichotomy.

Ultimately, I plump slightly more for the extrinsic drivers explanation for institutional frailty than the triumph of individualism, although I do think the same forces are implicated in both processes.  Technological progress, increasing affluence and rising levels of education have created a world which is more complex, fast moving and in which people have higher expectations and are more querulous. In this world the slow and unreliable way in which information tends to travel up and across, and decisions down and across, institutions has often meant their responses to the outside world have often been ill judged or flat footed. Not only have institutions becomes less effective but it has meant that inherent organisational dilemmas have become harder to handle: dilemmas such as innovation versus risk, short term results versus long term capacity, internal ideas of fairness versus external perceptions of appropriateness.

Institutions are not to blame for the factors making life more uncomfortable but they are often to blame for the choice many have then made. Instead of understanding these changes, owning them as challenges and opportunities and publicly airing the dilemmas which then emerge and the way the institution intends to resolve them, leaders have too often merely intensified or adapted the old forms of control. The classic example here is Westminster politics where the response to 24 hour news and a more critical public is not to embark on the difficult but noble task of achieving a richer and deeper public engagement but instead to try to impose rigid communication hierarchies. The wonderful tragi-comedy of ‘The thick of it’ is in essence all about people trying counter-productively to exert ever more control in a world where control of that kind is ultimately doomed.

Instead, institutions need a different mind-set. Put simply they need to see themselves as operating in a glass box in which most of what they do and most of why they do it is visible to everyone. The response to a problem of inauthenticity is not an authenticity communication strategy, it is to act authentically (and when this is difficult – as it often is – to be open about it and as far as possible invite colleagues, partners, customers and other stakeholders into exploring and resolving the dilemmas).

Healthy institutions are vital to a healthy society. They are concentrations of accumulated and current human energy which protect us from the overbearing power of the central state and the market. Institutions will not thrive through self-pity and self-indulgence but through self-awareness and a much deeper idea of accountability.


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