Privilege, principle and the little prince
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.