The Saturday Debate: Equality of opportunity just isn’t enough

Here’s your starter for ten as we experiment with a new Saturday slot posing a view for debate:

Belief in equality is, as the preamble to the Lib Dems’ constitutions states, one of the fundamental values of the party. But, as with all values, equality can mean different things to different people.

There has long been tension between liberals who believe the role of government is to aim for equality of opportunity for everyone, and liberals who believe government must promote equality of outcomes. The former will tend to stress the importance of education as the chief means by which individuals can better themselves and improve their lot; while the latter will argue that yes, education is vital, but ultimately life chances are determined by income – and the poorest in society will find life stacked against them no matter how good the educational opportunities, so we must actively promote ways to redistribute wealth from rich to poor.

This is now a very real issue for the party. In years of plenty, it was possible to reconcile these two approaches, to argue in favour of the party ploughing money into (for example) abolishing tuition fees, while also arguing in favour of (for example) real-terms increases in child benefit. But with public funding facing a savage squeeze the Lib Dems now have to prioritise like never before.

So what is the party going to put first? Policies which are most likely to deliver equality of opportunity, or those which will most likely deliver equality of outcome?

Let’s take a practical example. The party has made much of its plans to lift 3 to 4 million people out of tax completely by lifting the income tax threshold to £10,000. As Left Foot Forward has noted this will “result in a £700 tax giveaway to all earners including the wealthiest”. And as Vince Cable has admitted, “it’s redistributive effects may be not quite as radical as you get with tax credits.”

All politicians talk of tough choices. But it’s all tough choices for at least the next five years. We live in a deeply unequal society, where those born into poverty too often are unable to escape its grip. Yes, we should aspire to provide them with a wonderful education. More importantly, more urgently, we need to get serious about true redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. Ofering equality of opportunity just isn’t enough any more.

Agree? Disagree? Comment away …

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  • Andrew Tennant 13th Feb '10 - 8:22am

    Equality of opportunity is fine and, from a personal perspective I think it important to retain as our aim as it is essential that outcomes come from individuals in society taking ownership and responsibility for their actions. What you are highlighting is that an equal education is not sufficient to provide equality of opportunity, but rather that entrenched wealth and privilege still has not been compensated for.

    A classic example of this, on which Phil Willis has done a lot of campaigning, is the need for wealth, or at least an ambivolence to costs to work wageless as an intern for parliament or big businesses and to obtain the resultant career advantage.

    With the wealth inequalities in our society I often think we set the bar too low; we punish those who are merely aspirational, not actually that rich, whilst paying lip service to the obsene wealth not earnt, but accumlated over generations; at least with the CGT changes and the mansion tax our party is doing something.

    I once cornered Nick Clegg and ranted at him (poor guy) about significantly scaling up the rate of inheritance tax. I’m told it raises very little and wouldn’t be politically beneficial. He wasn’t having it.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Feb '10 - 9:07am

    “The party has made much of its plans to lift 3 to 4 million people out of tax completely by lifting the income tax threshold to £10,000. As Left Foot Forward has noted this will “result in a £700 tax giveaway to all earners including the wealthiest”. And as Vince Cable has admitted, “it’s redistributive effects may be not quite as radical as you get with tax credits.””

    But that’s mostly the point of it! After all, before the latest rejigging it was going to be a cut in the basic rate of income tax, billed as “big permanent tax cuts” for those on low and middle incomes.

    If you really wanted a radical redistributive effect you could raise the basic rate as well as the allowance. But what good would that do to the party’s electoral prospects in “Middle England”?

  • “So what is the party going to put first? Policies which are most likely to deliver equality of opportunity, or those which will most likely deliver equality of outcome?”

    I am not sure that it makes sense to talk in terms of there being a dictomony between the two. The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett suggests that distributional equality and social mobility are strongly correlated. I’d, therefore, suggest that we can and should tackle them simaltaneously.

  • simon mcgrath 13th Feb '10 - 2:01pm

    Equality of outcome is only possible by large scale redistribution and social enginering – ie socialism. People have different abilities and work ethic and vary in an infinite number of ways. As Liberals our job surely is to make sure that people can achieve as much as they are capable of,not that everyone ends up in the same place.

  • Tom Papworth 13th Feb '10 - 2:58pm


    “Equality of outcome is only possible by large scale redistribution and social enginering – ie socialism.”

    Not even then! The most motivated, the best self-promoters, and those with the fewest scruples will still rise to the top of the socialist apparatus, the vast state machine that will have to exist to manage the redistribution. They will garner power and privilage to themselves.

    I heard a Russian joke once. A chap boarding a busy bus tries to squeeze past the other passangers. “Excuse me, comrade,” he says, to which another passanger replies “If I was a Comrade, friend, I wouldn’t have to get the bus.”

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Feb '10 - 11:20pm

    Can I just say here how ridiculous it is that you’ve closed the thread on the sacking of Jenny Tonge?

    Obviously it generated a lot of comment and controversy – not all of which you may have agreed with. But just to close it down is completely at odds with your declared purpose of inviting discussion from all quarters both inside and outside the party.

    But I suppose this comment will be deleted on the basis that it’s “off-topic”!

  • FlyingLemons 13th Feb '10 - 11:29pm

    “Equality of outcome” politics often involves elaborate social engineering and doesn’t work. Indeed, the past 13 years of Labour have shown principally why it doesn’t work. You end up with initiatives, targets and interference from the state that restricts people’s freedom to actually achieve anything. You end up with the idea that the government can do absolutely everything for people, and that a solution dreamed up by a consultant is far better than the individual solution that the people lower down the chain might come up with.

    If, however, you ensure equality of opportunity, and that means opposing extreme concentrations of wealth as well as a bloated “Santa Claus state”, things are different. If you have a limited state that does the areas it does intervene in well, for example one that allows people on the minimum wage to work without being taxed for it, then you will achieve progressive goals. I’m very happy with the current policy direction of the party, mostly, and I think that the last thing UK politics needs is a “New Labour” clone that wants to ensure you do well by running every last facet of your life.

  • The basis should be equality of opportunity – for the simple reason that people make different choices and desire different lifestyles. Some people are ambitious workaholics, some prefer relaxing in easy jobs. And in any case, the logical conclusion of equality of outcomes is absolutely equal incomes – but why should we care so much about money? Also in the preamble is freedom from conformity, one dear to my heart, and this should be taken into consideration.

    Which is not to imply that I think people “choose” to be poor. Actual disadvantage is worrying and deeply unfair. That is why education is important, and the pupil premium (a redistributive transfer) is right. Redistribution is necessary to provide equiality of opportunity.

    But nevertheless, income disparity is not a bad thing when limited (to be expected) – not to say that we shouldn’t close it down – but the only self-sustaining sensible way to do that is to help people help themselves.

  • I am not sure how great The Spirit Level is actually at demonstrating it, but Mark Mills is right that income and, say, educational attainment are linked. You have to tackle both at the same time.

  • Simon Slater 17th Feb '10 - 7:05pm

    Seems to me like people could do with reading some of Anthony Crosland’s ‘Future of Socialism’ published in 1956. As a revisionist socialist (many of his supporters in fact ended up forming the SDP) he argued for a position in between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. In fact he argued (and right so in my view) that equality of opportunity in itself could not be achieved unless there was a great deal more equality of outcome. For example if peoples starting positions in life are so different how can it be possible for them to have an equal chance? Later in the 1970s John Rawls called this concept ‘Democratic Equality’ in his book ‘A Theory of Justice’.

  • Simon Slater 18th Feb '10 - 12:51pm


    The trick with reading the Future of Socialism is to make sure you get an un-edited edition. Unfortunately the 2006 re-print misses out quite a lot of stuff. So try and suggest to your freind that they read an earlier version. I think the 1968 version is complete. The Future of Socialism is very much a book of its time. In the final chapter Crosland talks about how automation will ensure all of us have far more leisure, to pursue the arts and culture, and even mentions we could all go on to a working week with far less hours. That never seemed to materialise. Crosland also talk about how capitalism no longer exists and that we have moved into a post capitalist era.

    Another good book on this subject is actually Roy Hattersley’s ‘Choose Freedom’ which in my view try to combine the social democratic tradition of community as espoused by R.H. Tawney with Crosland concept of equality. David Marquand also has written the ‘Unprincipled Soceity’ which I suppose the SDP response from the early 1980s. But apparently in the 1970’s Crosland told all the young revisonists like Hattersley, Owen, Marquand, Shirley Williams etc to go way and write their own versions of the Future of Socialism.

    Must admit I find Rawls far more complicated to understand. Far more theoretical but his ‘Original Position’ and ‘Difference Principle’ helps to justify arguments for greater equality or outcome far more succintly. Similar to Crosland’s Rent of Abaility idea. The view that differentials in pay are only justified if they benefit the least well off and more so than they would be if the differential was not paid. But the argument is that pay differentials are not justified on merit or talent but on the view that those services would not provided properly unless there was a pay differential. Probably badly explained but both Crosland and Rawls seem to come to that view. Of course a question here is whether or not this view is similar to the trickle down effect as you have already stated? It is not totally disimilar but I suspect the society Crosland and Rawls wanted to see are very different to the type of society the Thactherites wanted.

  • Simon Slater 18th Feb '10 - 3:57pm

    The problem with equality of opportunity is that it cannot exist without a great deal of equality of outcome. That is why when Conservatives talk about equality of opportunity it is a bit weak. The problem of course is that even if you had the best education system available absolute equality of opportunity would still be impossible if you had some kids coming from extremely poor backgrounds and others from extremely wealthy ones. The wealthy and the middle class kids will always have more opportunities because their parents are generally more educated and know how to play the system to get the best education. In this sense the bigger recipients of government welfare is often the middle classes because they know how to get their kids into the best state schools, etc, same with health.

    Of course complete equality of opportunity is itself probably an unachievable aspiration even if you had a great deal more equality of outcome. However I would argue that if people do not believe in more equality of outcome then by default they cannot believe in equality of opportunity in its truest form.

    In terms of inheritance tax I think it plays an important role in redistribution, indeed inherited wealth is probably the biggest obstacle in terms of ever achieving a realisable concept of equality of opportunity. The problem is of course that no one wants to pay it. They may think other people should pay it, but generally think they should be excluded. Of course thats the problem with all taxes.

    The paradox facing all political parties as a result is therefore as follow:
    1. Everyone wants better and more public services
    2. People see the need for tax to be raised to do this. But then dont think it should be them that have to pay the extra tax.
    3. Politicians then are forced into a position of promising tax cuts and improved public services all at the same time.
    4. This can only be achieved if the economy is growing at a very fast rate and in historical terms the British economy generally does not provide enough growth to pay for all the demands upon it.
    5. People get disillusioned with politcians because they cannot deliver the promises they have made in elections. Yet the politians would never have won the election had they not made such unrealistic promises.

  • Simon Slater 18th Feb '10 - 7:15pm


    You are right it is a sweeping statement and if of course a big generalisation. But I think it does outline the views of people in my experience. The view was not meant to be taken totally seriously but I think does highlight an underpinning problem all parties have.


    Not too sure about this idea of a Universal Inheritance. Would it be means tested or given to everyone? A lot of people might just blow the money?

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