Thursday, September 12, 2013

Equality vs equality of opportunity - a past debate

Tonight a very short muse flowing from Indi, Mirabella & the decline of the welfare state. There I said in part:

The underlying idea of the growth of the welfare state is quite popular. However, I think that it's also wrong. The welfare state as envisaged at the end of the Second World war died during the 1970s. We actually live in a post-welfare state world in which the fight is no longer over the concept of cradle to the grave security, that's dead, nor even over the idea of a proper safety net for the poorest; that's dead too.

In 2006, I explored some of these issues in a series of post on changing approaches to public administration since the Second World War. I didn't have time this morning to go back and check that earlier writing. I will do so later. I think that it's helpful to put some of these discussions in an historical context. Sophie Mirabella is actually a good example of the nature of the ideological changes that have taken place.

Some of my past writing that I looked at I find to be very good; useful explorations of the changing patterns of ideas.S ome I find confused.

One confusion, and it has a certain relevance today, lies in the conflation of ideas about the welfare state with ideas about the role of Government. In that past thinking, I mixed together under the welfare state rubric ideas from the left about things such as government ownership or the broad role of Government in the economy with very different ideas connected with welfare.

The meaning to be attached to the words welfare state is not the same as big government, nor an activist role for government in the broad sense. You can accept the idea of a welfare state without supporting either, although welfare state certainly implies a bigger government than would otherwise be the case.

In reflecting on train and bus, I was drawn back to intellectual and political debates of the first half of the 1970s, to the distinction between equality and opportunity. We were Country Party radicals wishing to reform the Party.In doing so, we drew a distinction between equality, a Labor View, and equality of opportunity, a Country Party position. In bias terms, I didn't see the Liberals as supporting equality of opportunity. How could they?, for in practical terms the outcome of their positions was the protection of privilege, of the majority, the advantaging of those who at that point were big and had an edge.

But what was equality of opportunity? What did it actually mean in terms of policy stances?

This is a debate that's largely dead, that's gone. We do talk, for example, about bridging the gap where a particular group has become really disadvantaged. But we don't talk about equality of opportunity and what it means, of the role of government in bringing it about. That belongs to a past age.

I think that its time to bring it back.


In a tweet, NSW National MP Jenny Gardiner wrote:

@JimBelshaw Indeed. Maybe what John Anderson did re Maths skills for country kids & Piccoli's agenda hark back to equality of opportunity?


Wikipedia defines welfare state in these terms:

A welfare state is a "concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. The general term may cover a variety of forms of economic and social organization.

The difficulty I have with this definition, the cause of what I see as the confusion in my earlier writing, lies in the way it mixes different things together; protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens; equality of opportunity and equitable distribution of wealth (equality); and the minimal provisions for a good life (safety net). I have bolded the ands to draw out very different threads that can conflict.   

Postscript 2Please-climb-that-tree1

In a comment, anon drew my attention to this cartoon that, he suggested, provided a conservative view of equality of opportunity. I have saved it primarily as an example illustration to use in some of my management writing.

Now this cartoon actually says nothing about equality, rather that different people have different skills.      


Rummuser said...

Quite how do we go about bringing it back? I despair that it is simply not possible, not even in the erstwhile communist countries.

Jim Belshaw said...

I don't know that I can answer that question, Ramana. I was talking about this with a friend the other day. At the moment, I'm just trying to disentangle issues in my own mind.

Evan said...

I think it is those 'ands' you need to tease out. They contain many dynamics and complexities.

I'm saying that the two terms they join are related and not easily separable.

Anonymous said...

this is what conservatives mean by equality of opportunity

Anonymous said...

All this talk of equality, and/or equality of opportunity, and/or equitable distribution etc. denies the simple fact that nothing affecting any life form is predicated on achieving or maintaining 'equality' however defined. It is the insecurity of difference which is the main driver of anything more sentient than a rock.

Speaking of which, 'Anon' provided a pic to illustrate "what conservatives mean by equality of opportunity". Why not just recognise the diversity and deal with it? Not everyone can climb a tree, or bend it like Beckham.

Agonising over inequalities is just mush; a dream for the perpetual, inevitable losers, and a handy political tool for the leaders.


Jim Belshaw said...

The problem with those ands, Evan, lies in inbuilt conflicts that bedevil analysis today. I will try to tease that out despite kvd's tart comment!

kvd, presumably anon's link to the cartoon annoyed you. I have saved it for later use!

You agonise all the time over inequalities. Like Gippsland Financial!

Anonymous said...

"inequalities. Like Gippsland Financial!"

Rather loose-ish definition of 'inequalities' you're working with Jim :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Maybe, kvd, but it was the tone of your comment: "It is the insecurity of difference which is the main driver of anything more sentient than a rock ...Agonising over inequalities is just mush; a dream for the perpetual, inevitable losers, and a handy political tool for the leaders."

On a related note, the anniversary of the Lehman Bros collapse drew me back into a review of my writing at the time and thus to your then comments. We talked then of regulation in the context of the GFC.

It reminded me of just how long we have been chatting via the comments section and just how valuable your comments have been to me:)

Anonymous said...

Yes, it has been a while Jim - and I find your perspectives have helped me enormously in making sense of my feelings/thoughts on those parts of the world which I find interesting.

I am certain that by now you have picked up on the fact that I sometimes take a contrarian view on issues - more to provoke reasoned response than to simply stir the pot. Probably comes from my enjoyment of high school debates wherein one was forced to sometimes adopt and argue a case for or against some issue or other which was directly opposed to one's then budding opinion of same :)

On the Lehman thing, there was an interesting commentary today by Gail Kelly about the frantic behind the scenes activity at that point in time - made even more notable by the fact that Westpac (and no doubt all the rest) established their crisis management team well before the proverbial hit the cooking implement.

Not sure I am reassured that these fine people were working away quietly in the background all the while ensuring that we the people were kept completely uninformed.

Totally unrelated to any of the above - I'm fascinated by just how close most basically two-party elections are. I looked at US and French Presidentials, and our own elections, and other similar contests around the world - and it seems you never get a 75-25 or 82-18 result?

I assume this is because both 'sides' cling to the middle ground, but it sort of belies the 'stark choice' gambit often invoked by one side or the other.


Anonymous said...

ps: have also just sent what I hope is a polite email to Ross Gittins requesting his comment upon that item 7.23 in the Coalition costings document (re PPL and the 1.5% tax reduction)

Will let you know if my admission of incomprehension provokes a reply of some sort :)


Tikno said...

Can I add the other "ands"? Fairly and wisely as complement to these complexity ?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. As you will see from today's post, I had seen the kelly stuff and, like you, I was struck by the date at which Helix was established. I also hadn't realised how close Australia had come to a bank-run.

I don't know that you can the blame the banks for their secrecy. It may well be that the Australian bank crises of the late eighties, early nineties (Westpac almost went broke in 1992) served us well this time.

Will be interested to see if you get a response from Ross.

Hi Tikno and welcome back! You may add that and.