Ticking the box is easier than opening it
Broadening access to elite opportunities to disadvantaged groups is great, but it lets us off the hook on tackling the underlying disadvantage
Tackling inequalities in Britain requires us to open Pandora’s box. Daniel Chandler argued in his book Free & Equal that a serious attempt to reshape society based on the principles of the philosopher John Rawls would require a radical rethinking of how our institutions are structured. Whatever you think of Rawls, the same dilemma confronts anyone who wishes to curb the worst excesses of inequalities in Britain: is it better to compensate for the barriers facing disadvantaged groups, or to remove those barriers by tackling the underlying disadvantage itself?
The first route is normally easier but less effective, and a pernicious side-effect is that taking it often diverts attention away from the arguments for taking the second, harder but ultimately necessary route. Ticking the box helps us all feel better about not looking inside Pandora’s box. We know that we won’t like what we find in it. But we need to open the box, and then to have the necessary debates about how to deal with inequalities in Britain. At the moment we’re shirking that debate.
In fairness, there have been some serious attempts in recent years both to uncover the full scope of inequalities and to think about how to tackle at least some of them. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Deaton Review of Inequality, published last year, provides reams of analysis of every imaginable facet of inequality in the UK, with plenty of international comparisons to draw on. And the Levelling Up White Paper was, for all its faults, a decent attempt to diagnose and respond to regional inequalities in Britain, albeit with a political agenda that put most other forms of inequality out of scope.
The problem, as is so often the case, is that we suffer a collective delusion in this country that we live in a meritocracy. This notion flies in the face of the facts, but is so deeply embedded in our culture and self-image that the facts bounce off it like plastic darts hitting a Humvee.
A similar dynamic is in play regardless of what type of inequality we’re talking about. Whether the disadvantage (or discrimination) particularly affects people on the basis of their race, class, region, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, age or any other factor (or combination of the above), we are programmed to look for the stories of individuals triumphing against the odds, to reassure us that there is still a route to success for those with the talent and grit who are prepared to work hard enough. Individual stories are easier to both understand and influence than complicated systems and structures. And we’re equally keen to celebrate the initiatives that help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in education and to access elite careers.
These initiatives are often laudable (even if there is usually scope for improvement). But one problem is that focusing too much on social mobility (or ‘weak equality of opportunity’) can blind us to the underlying issue, which is that we can never have a fair society without reducing levels of inequality. A limited degree of social mobility would take us nowhere near Rawls’s principles of basic liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and wouldn’t even begin to tackle what he calls the ‘difference principle’ (that social and economic inequalities are only justified to the extent that they benefit everyone and maximise the life chances of the least advantaged in society).
There’s another problem with our collective meritocratic delusion. Sometimes (not always), the elite careers that certain people from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in entering are themselves responsible for creating and reinforcing disadvantage in society. To quote the sociologist Louise Ashley:
To the extent that the City of London has responded to its role in the UK inequalities, the dominant focus has been on who its elite firms recruit and promote, rather than its wider impact.
My book, Highly Discriminating, and the related Conversation long read offered evidence that while the City’s recent focus on diversity and inclusion can be life-changing for a few individuals, to date it has still largely maintained the traditional white, male and privately educated status quo at the top.
Most worryingly, I concluded that such programmes can be used as a smokescreen, giving elite firms a certain legitimacy that distracts from demands for a more open debate about the City’s wider responsibility in driving up geographical and related inequalities.
Nick Shaxson has written about the finance curse - how the outsized power of the City of London makes Britain poorer. Josh Ryan-Collins has highlighted how the deregulation of the financial system has created a positive feedback cycle between finance and house prices, which has made buying a home an impossible dream for millions. You don’t have to agree with every word of these arguments to concede that a debate about the extent to which the UK economy is dominated by the finance sector, and what impact this has on our economy and on society, is important and worth having. But it appears that such a debate is being actively shut down, and that laudable initiatives focused on social mobility and diversity are sometimes co-opted in this effort to police what can and cannot be discussed by being used to divert attention away from these fundamental issues.
This isn’t to suggest that there is a conspiracy, or even a deliberate strategy, in play. And there are undoubtedly signs of hope and genuine progress in the City of London. But the fact remains that we are all implicated in a societal failure to ask the difficult questions, and to focus on the underlying causes of inequalities. We need to open Pandora’s box, and we need to acknowledge our collective responsibility to talk about the issues that emerge from it and to agree how we are going to tackle them.
Our next event
Peter Turchin on End Times: Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration
Wednesday 10 January, 13:00 to 14:00 UK time on Zoom
What factors drive political turmoil and societal breakdown? How do elites sustain their dominance, and why do ruling classes occasionally lose their hold on power?
Peter Turchin, an expert in researching the origins of political instability, uncovers a recurring trend. When the scales of power heavily favour the ruling elite, it leads to a surge in income inequality, enriching the wealthy and impoverishing the less privileged. As more individuals aspire to join the elite, dissatisfaction with the established order intensifies, often resulting in calamity.
Join the Policy Institute and the Fairness Foundation for a conversation about political upheaval, inequality, and the historical lessons we can glean. Are we truly living in "End Times," or can history provide a glimmer of optimism for breaking free from past cycles?
Gerry Mitchell, Social policy researcher, writer, community activist and co-author of Uncomfortably Off: Why the Top 10% of Earners Should Care about Inequality
Will Snell, Chief Executive, the Fairness Foundation (Chair)
Mary Harrington, author and contributing editor at UnHerd
Paul Summerville, Adjunct Professor, Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria and co-author of Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters
Peter Turchin, Complexity Scientist, one of the founders of Cliodynamics and author of The Times thought book of the year, End Times: Elites, counter-elites and the path of political disintegration