Justifiable Inequality

In a co-authored Comment Is Free piece, Phillip Blond and John Milbank aver that we need the right kind of inequality. We can reportedly achieve this by carrying out a synthesis of traditional Tory and Leftist ideals, which would allow us to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable inequality. The unjustifiable kind is based in race prejudice or in the nihilistic application of skill in socially useless activities such as investment banking — surely we can all agree on that. The justifiable kind is a form of class privilege that serves as “a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue. By virtue we mean here a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of wider society.”

Presumably we are to believe that there is some way of implementing this political program, despite the fact that no qualified judge of what is justified or unjustified equality seems to exist — unless we’re to imagine Rowan Williams or, probably even better, Benedict XVI handing down these moral recommendations — nor does actual existing class privilege serve to equip leaders for the exercise of virtue in public life as far as I can tell. The gesture is the same as with “Catholic social teaching”: bring together elements of left and right in some unprecedented mixture to prove your brilliance and ability to think “outside the box,” and provide no concrete means to get to this supposed utopia other than hoping that people’s hearts change and they suddenly start doing the right thing. It’s a pose, not a program, and its only possible concrete effect can be to support the right wing.

Overall, the article reminds me of a quote from the Communist Manifesto that I’ve used before in this connection: “Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”

8 thoughts on “Justifiable Inequality

  1. Adam:

    I agree with you that existing class privilege does not serve to equip leaders to exercise virtue in public (though I am not sure how governing can be accomplished outside some exercise of power or authority, which may not be possible to distribute evenly–and I truly mean that I don’t know about this).

    But at least they are being honest (and I do not say this as a defense of their program!). They illustrate what almost every form of government does anyway, but in clearer terms: “we need instead a more radical economic egalitarianism coupled with the recognition of a difference of roles and a hierarchy of excellence.” At least they are not pretending they do do not desire to do otherwise-i.e., than build yet another hierarchy for implementing their political program. This problem faces every form of government.

  2. It does seem to be the case that some form of representation is necessary to human society and that some form of inequality in the exercise of power is inescapable. Some mechanism for distributing the representative roles and the unequal exercise of power must be devised.

    I grant all of that. But so does the mainstream center-left — its answer to that problem is formal democracy combined with meritocracy. No “dishonesty” is involved here. I agree with Milbank and Blond that that particular method doesn’t seem to be producing very good results. I don’t think that the historical record would lead us to believe that their apparent alternative of family dynasties with a tradition of governing would be any better — even leaving aside pre-modern Europe, for every Kennedy family, you also get a Bush family. I also don’t know of many people who look at the British royals and say, “You know, they should be given real power in addition to their purely formal role.”

    In short, I don’t think it’s helpful to move the discussion to the “meta” level of “well, you have to have some form of government, right?” nor do I see how the “at least they’re being honest” defense works in the context of an article that clearly articulates the center-left’s avowed approach to the same questions they’re trying to answer differently.

    Moving to a different meta-level, however, I believe that this kind of stuff is fine as a thought experiment. But Phillip Blond is basically a semi-sophisticated propagandist for the actual existing Tory Party, albeit he is selling it on the basis of some imagined future version of the party that will never actually exist. Assessing this kind of article as a political intervention into our actual present-day situation, it seems clear to me that its positive agenda has no chance of being enacted (and indeed, they appear to have given zero thought to how it could be, other than palling around with Tories) and that its concrete effect can only be to give some aid to the even worse of the two bad options. I’m willing to bet that even on the latter front, the impact of someone like Blond is negligible — the Tories seem destined to win eventually, given that two-party democracies tend to switch parties whenever the economy is in the shitter.

  3. Adam,

    I find all of your response to be agreeable. I simply wanted to point out what I seldom see–a clear advocation for hierarchy. I probably pay less attention to current affairs than you, so maybe you see it more often, but it is always interesting to me when someone goes out of their way to say we need hierarchy–usually the fact that we need some form of government hierarchy is just a practical necessity assumed, not something argue for. And how bizarre is it to argue for a return to dynasties and fox-hunting (elsewhere–but still referring to Blond)?

  4. 1. It is nonsense to claim that it “justified inequality” has not been considered. The notion of justified inequality is inherent to the neoliberal organisation of society. Hayek wrote a great deal about how certain kinds of inequality were the driver of progress as well as entirely justified. Indeed, there is already talk of those rising to the top having the right kind of “virtues”, albeit the virtues of being a good entrepreneurial capitalist.
    2. As soon as you start considering “inequality is justified” you need to start asking “who decides what inequality?”. While Blond and Milbank would doubtless like this to be some kind of virtuous elite, in a quasi-Platonic mould, the ultimate answer to this would be “we”, all people especially those who are the inequality is directed at. The end result makes you think of radical democracy and social organisation stressed by systems such as participatory economics. Such exploration would actually end up removing hierarchy.
    3. To wax Rawlsian, where precisely do Blond and Milbank believe they would end up in the system?

  5. By the way, given the nature of the monitoring that goes on online especially regarding this site and issue, we are suspending the part of our comment policy that discourages people using pseudonyms or consistent names. People should feel safe here and hopefully certain micro-fascists won’t report anyone to the authorities.

  6. Why are “intelligence, skill and application” thought to be individual achievements and not simply matters of luck? The entire idea of merit relies on questionable ideas of the will and human nature.

    Why not reward those who have the the greatest capacity to grow their eyebrows?

  7. It seems clear to me why intelligent, skilled go-getters are able to command a greater share of society’s resources, on average, than ordinary people — they have something valuable to offer that eyebrow-growers don’t. So it’s not quite arbitrary, but it’s not clearly just — even if they can gain greater power due to accidents of birth or upbringing, do they deserve greater power?

  8. I would make a distinction between power and resources. We may want go-getters to have more power (insofar as they can benefit society as a whole), but this does not mean they deserve to consume more. But this false idea of dessert undergirds the continuation of capitalism. Nothing is seen as more of an affront to our sense of self than the idea that people don’t deserve whatever it is that they have. “I didn’t work my butt off for nothing, did I?” This is the refrain of our true global anthem.

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