Tony Blair has nothing to learn from the academic leftby Samuel Brittan / January 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Some decades ago there was a temporary alliance of economic writers from across the political spectrum in favour of what we fondly called expansionist economic policies. At the height of this campaign I invited for lunch the late Frank Blackaby, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. To my surprise he spent the first part of the lunch sulking. My crime, it turned out, was to have conceded that Selwyn Lloyd was right to adjust some of the confiscatory upper marginal tax rates, inherited from the wartime period, which had become simply a penalty on those who did not know the tax-avoidance ropes.
This was my first intimation of how strongly egalitarian gestures were valued even by members of the moderate left who were not interested in nationalisation or abolishing public schools.
Equality is an ersatz religion for much of the academic left. My second intimation of this came a few years later on a sabbatical at Nuffield College, Oxford, where I found an almost universal belief in some kind of material equality as a goal, which then reluctantly had to be qualified by incentive payments for the sake of economic efficiency.
One might therefore welcome a tract by a political philosopher (from Balliol of course) which defends egalitarianism instead of simply assuming it. This is undermined, however, by the author’s pretence that he has written a neutral analysis. He skates over the difficult issues of whether equality should be considered at a particular moment or over a lifetime; between individuals or between families and whether people with exceptional needs deserve more than an equal proportion. Even the issue of whether equality should be applied within nations or globally is passed over in a few sentences. Swift is so obsessed by material equality that he does not even take on the political right on subjects such as equality of status or respect.
This book suggests that Tony Blair can expect little help from the academic left. Most of them were happy with old Labour, merely sad that the electorate would not vote for it. Swift wants his book to be read by cabinet ministers but accepts that its real audience is students. His unfortunate undergraduate is, however, left with no notion that there can be a respectable non-opportunist opposition to egalitarianism-or that philosophy could be a matter of analysis, proposing policy only in a tentative and Socratic…