David Cameron recently wrote that ‘the Conservatives have become the party of equality’. Most of the article is about ending discrimination – of ‘gender, race, religion, sexuality or disability’ – partly by basing entry to universities and good jobs ‘solely on merit’. He also mentions his party’s ‘belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome’, drawing attention to the centrality of educational reform under his leadership.
Where the Prime Minister is spot on is in his opposition to equality of outcome. If his opponents in other parties stand by it, they are wrong. There is no intrinsic value in equality in this sense. Aiming at everyone’s having an equal amount of some good – income, educational attainment, well-being, or whatever – is compatible with each person’s living below the bread line or in almost total ignorance or misery.
This thought has turned many contemporary philosophers away from this sort of egalitarianism and towards ‘sufficientarianism’ – the view that what should count is not that all should be equal, but that all should have enough. What is bad in our society as in so many others is that many are suffering because they are poor, ill-educated, ill-housed, unhealthy. Politics should be partly about seeing that they have what they need to lead a fulfilling life – not a minimum for bare survival, but the wherewithal for a flourishing existence.
In our post-1980s world of an increasing gap between rich and poor, this may well mean some redistribution from the former to the latter. Reducing the wealth gap can be instrumentally valuable: in our own field of education, it can help children to have better provided and more generously staffed schools. But it has nothing to do with advancing the cause of equality as an end in itself, for this cause is misconceived.
Cameron compares ‘equality of opportunity’ favourably with ‘equality of outcome’, linking it to his educational reforms. What he means by it is that all young people should have the same chance of getting to college or university and into a good job. Hence, for instance, the drive to raise academic achievement and the EBacc as the new national standard to measure school improvement.
Allowing some children from ordinary families to join a traditional élite can shore up the latter and act as a Bismarckian safety-valve against social unrest. The last thirty years – from Keith Joseph’s creation of the GCSE, through the National Curriculum, league tables, and the shift of power from localities to centre – have created a more effective mechanism for this than the outright selection of the 11+ days.
An equality of opportunity policy is better than nothing but does not help the great number of ordinary children left behind as others climb the pole. Here again the sufficientarian approach wins out.
Cameron’s point about ending discrimination is egalitarian in a different and more acceptable sense. ‘Democratic equality’ is about how we relate to each other as citizens. A central democratic value is equality of respect. This is exemplified in ‘one person one vote’, but goes deeper as Cameron rightly shows. Indeed it could and should extend beyond his categories of ‘gender, race, religion, sexuality or disability’. He does not mention class. Notoriously, the 7 per cent of the total age group educated in private schools account for ‘71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Permanent Secretaries, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 45 per cent of public body chairs….’ and so on across élite positions. As the American political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has argued, if those in top jobs are to serve the interests of all citizens, not least those in most need, they have to have qualities of understanding and empathy not likely to be abundant in a small group of wealthy individuals. Given that Cameron is sincere in his crusade for social justice, he should now take steps to reduce the power of those from private schools and élite state schools, e.g. through ceilings on private school entrants to Oxbridge, or by Tamsin Oglesby’s suggestion, indebted to Peter Wilby, in her new play Future Conditional, that top universities should offer two or three places to every secondary school. We need now to democratize our élite.