Monday, November 24, 2003
I reproduce below a brief book review that I originally had published in 1979. I think it is even more relevant today than when I wrote it
Quadrant, November 1979, vol. 23 (11), 68-69.
IS EQUALITY MORALLY OBNOXIOUS?
By John J. Ray
Review of Equality by Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption.
John May, London.
When I was in Britain in 1977, I was fortunate to meet briefly with Margaret Thatcher. A remark she made which particularly impressed me was that what the Conservative cause needed was more critiques of Marx and other Left-wing, theorists. She was saying, in other words, that Conservatives had first to win on the philosophical battlefield before they could hope for any lasting political victory. Such an intellectual orientation was indeed a surprise in a practical political leader.
It would seem that her concern in this direction is indeed bearing fruit. In Equality we have one of her senior ministers turning out a work which would be a credit to any intellectual. Whether dealing with theoretical economics, philosophy or statistics, the book often succeeds in the course of a few paragraphs at overturning in the most convincing way the most imposing and most widely accepted of theoretical edifices.
Anybody with the most basic knowledge of economics has heard of marginal utility theory. It is a classical and seemingly essential analytical tool. Yet in one or two understated paragraphs of this very modestly-worded book, the theory is so thoroughly overturned by reference to the most obvious examples that one wonders how most of us were deceived for so long. Not being an academic economist, I am not in a position to know whether Joseph and Sumption's analysis is original, but if it is, it must mark them as better economists than most of those who claim to specialize in the discipline. Original or not, what Joseph and Sumption certainly do is to ensure that this particular theory can never again be used in support of egalitarianism.
The philosophical theory of justice by Rawls fares no better. This ponderous and often-quoted theory is shown to be circular in language that even the most inexpert layman can understand. If the most elaborate theoretical constructions of its opponents can be so easily demolished, one can only be surprised that Conservatism's intellectual status has for so long been so low. One is led to wonder how many Left-wing intellectuals could survive an equally critical appraisal.
When one comes to the chapter entitled "Lies, damn lies and statistics", one again finds Joseph and Sumption pulling off a seemingly impossible feat. One expects the sort of innumerate, populist inveighing against what they cannot understand that one gets from others who use this quotation. What we get instead is a discussion of the often-quoted statistics of the sort which say that "Only ten per cent of the population own forty per cent of the wealth". Such statistics are so widely quoted, that most of us assume that they must be at least largely true. So long however is the list that the book produces of the things that such official statistics leave out that we are left with the very strong suspicion that truly adequate statistics would reveal very little inequality at all!
Overall, what the authors do, however, is to compare the moral consequences of egalitarian versus libertarian economic policies. We are all at least vaguely aware of the sort of bureaucratic horrors and economic waste that the search for legislated equality brings, but what Joseph and Sumption do is to show that these consequences are intrinsic -- essential consequences of an egalitarian social programme. They show how policies of promoting egalitarian economic arrangements subvert the very ideals they were devised to serve. One such demonstration that must be very thought-provoking to many Australians is the demonstration that equality of opportunity is as a policy inconsistent with a policy of equality of results. Equality of opportunity is a policy that most Australians would accept to at least some degree. Yet how many of us realize that such a policy of itself entails substantial liberties -- liberties enough to ensure as a result a society which is economically very unequal indeed.
To a considerable extent the book is an expose --- an expose of the woolly thinking, bad logic and incredible assumptions that have underlain the utterances of those who advocate economic equality. Nor is it merely a critique of extreme egalitarianism. The logic is as bad and the assumptions as untenable whether it is complete or only partial equality that one wishes to enforce.
Most of us are used to economic liberty ("free enterprise") being defended on purely pragmatic grounds. We are given examples to show that free enterprise simply works better when it comes to creating wealth or expanding aggregate wealth. The Joseph and Sumption book, by contrast, contains not a single national income statistic. It is instead an intensely humanistic and philosophical attack on equality. It shows how destructive to most shared and treasured human qualities the search for legislated equality is. Equality has for too long been an unquestioned good. If this book is as widely read as it should be, those who advocate equality will Increasingly be on the defensive -- not just in terms of statistical but in terms of moral arguments.
One suspects that most people have not thought out the basic philosophical implications of equality versus inequality. Anyone who does so will find it hard to avoid Joseph and Sumption's rather startling conclusion -- that it is equality rather than inequality which is immoral.