It is interesting that Michael Fry addresses the issue of equality solely in terms of income and wealth. And that he appears to regard equality as synonymous with identicalness. Taken together with his focus on practicalities, what this suggests is an attitude to the concept of equality born of a particular, and rather mechanistic, world-view.
If equality is to be measured solely in economic terms then this surely will create serious practical problems. Indeed, the potential difficulties are obvious enough that Mr Fry’s resort to argumentum ad absurdum to make his point seems more than a little excessive. It is not ordinary pay differentials that equality campaigners are condemning, but a system that is geared to accelerating accumulation without regard for the human and societal impact. Or, for that matter, the economic implications.
To put it simply, nobody is suggesting that every member of society should have the same income; only that no-one should be inescapably disadvantaged solely as a consequence of the ‘normal’ functioning of the economy. The only purpose served by defining equality as economic identicalness is to provide a self-serving justification for the conclusion that it is an inappropriate matter for public policy; and an unrealistic or even unachievable ambition.
But what if we choose a different measure. Suppose we select a criterion for equality that is not related to money. Or, at least, not directly related to money. We might, for example, think about the matter of power, and the extent to which political power tends to be a function of economic power. We might consider the possibility of offsetting economic power with political power.
Just as a thought experiment, imagine what might happen if everybody on benefits were to have two votes instead of one.
Another possibility, and the one which I think holds considerable promise, is the concept of security. As anyone who has experienced poverty – real poverty – will know, the absolute worst thing about it is, not the deprivation and the degradation, but the hopelessness. It’s not just that you don’t know where the next meal will come from, but the corrosive sense that you will never be sure of your next meal.
It is not the fear of losing your home, but the fact that it can never truly be a home while the threat of losing it looms over you.
It is not the fact of having no money, but the soul-destroying, will-sapping conviction of being trapped in this condition of self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating insecurity.
It’s knowing that, even if a rising tide does raise all ships, it doesn’t help because you are stuck in a rotting, leaky, overcrowded dinghy that you are obliged to rent at exorbitant cost from the bastards in the ships.
It is this insecurity that can, and must, be addressed by public policy. As Michael Fry has been at great pains to explain, it is almost certainly not practically possible that we should all be equally wealthy. But it is perfectly feasible that we should all be equally secure in the essentials of life. That’s what I mean by equality.
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