Why aren’t we all Egalitarians?

It appears there are not as many Egalitarians in the UK as New Labour might like to think.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, commissioned by the Fabian Society, seems to show that people in England aren’t particularly keen on equality. They think high income earners deserve their level of wealth, and conversely, low income earners also deserve theirs. High pay is seen as the result of hard work and talent and high income earners are seen as making an economic contribution to the nation. People ‘underestimate the number of rich tax cheats’ and ‘exaggerate the number of benefit cheats’ (Ashley, 2009: 27). Only 22% are traditional egalitarians. In what sense is this a problem?

John Denham has aspeech on equality on the Fabian website and there is, of course a new equalities bill in progress. Even Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has launched anequalities framework.

Egalitarian Equality

Perhaps what is needed is a reappraisal of the concept of equality (cf Sen, 1995). But what would make for a ‘coherent doctrine of equality’ (Patrick Diamond)?  The ‘old’ left continues to promote the Egalitarian agenda of equality of outcome, the levelling of society. In the UK, still one of the least equal nations in Europe, this agenda necessarily has a long way yet to run. Westminster could do worse than to glance west and north to the politics of the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, to see how British voters and British politicians can support a cultural shift in the direction of Scandinavian-style Egalitarian social democracy. At the same time, thouogh, they should keep an eye on the right wing parties in the Norse nations to see that there is nothing inevitable about this kind of social levelling.

Individualist Equality

But Egalitarians do not have the last word on equality – far from it. The Labout modernists and Blairites, especially Mandelson, Miliband and Jowett, were never particularly in step with full-blown Egalitarianism, Their approach resembles much more closely that of Individualism, for which equality means, first and foremost, equality of opportunity, closely followed by equality of contract before the law.

This kind of equality foregrounds the responsibillity of the individual to govern their own course through life and expects, even celebrates the prospect of eventual inequality. For Individualism an Egalitarian world would be one without the promise of reward for achievement and therefore without purpose.

Yet this is precisely the form of equality detected in the Rowntree Trust/Fabian research. ‘Deserved’ success is apparently not envied but applauded.

A chief difficulty with establishing the Egalitarian forms of equality is that enforcing equality of outcome appears to entail taking away from the successful. This is a strategy widely seen as inequitable, and not just by the direct victims. In a sense, everyone loses when the successful lose, because it is seen as an attack on widely held aspirations. Indeed, from an Individualist perspective, income redistribution can enrich a person’s pocket at the same time as plundering their dreams.

Conversely, the difficulty with implementing the Individualist forms of equality is that equality of opportunity always has an inconvenient pre-history: accidents of birth and upbringing that form the context in which opportunity is curtailed and unevenly distributed. Individualist intervention, then, always seems somewhat arbitrary. Furthermore, Individualist-style equality faces a formidable opponent – not from Egalitarianism, which tends to accept some of its key premises, if not its emphases – but from a third form of equality, Hierarchical equality.

Hierarchical Equality

On the face of it Hierarchical equality is an oxymoron. Hierarchies, by definition, are supposed to be deeply unequal. There is a top and a bottom to the heap and everyone knows where they are. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high and lowly and ordered their estate.”

But this Hierarchical ordering actually depends on an internal structure of equality, without which it would founder. Each level of a class system or a bureaucracy is a level of strict equality. Notionally every second lieutenant in the army, every vice-president of marketing in the corporation is the equal of every other, and a certain interchangeability of personnel within ranks is required by the system. No one, for example, is confused by the fact that the Duke of York has the same name as each and every one of his predecessors.

We can see this Hierarchical equality as an equality of entitlement. Everyone is entitled to the respect due to their particular station in life. And with entitlement comes an equality of duty. As in the classic medieval feudalism and in various systems of patronage, everyone owes something to those higher and – crucially – lower in the social order. Furthermore, everyone owes a significant debt of duty to maintain the Hierarchical system as a whole: for God, king and country.

The difficulty with implementing such a Hierarchical equality is that it entirely depends on people recognising their station in life as ‘natural’ and fixed, with identifiable benefits accruing, whereas in times of social change this breaks down and starts to look decidedly unnatural.

Fatalist Equality

Finally it needs to be said that the aspirations of Egalitarianism, Individualism and Hierarchy alike are often mocked by the workings of fate. Accidents of birth and history merely set the scene for lives that continue to be influenced by random happenings. Such randomness can make a mockery of our plans for ourselves and for our society, and to overlook this randomness is as futile as it is to seek to avoid it. This is the perspective of Fatalism and it is the fourth cultural bias identified by grid-group cultural theory. Fatalist equality holds that the world is inherently capricious and that fairness is probably unattainable in this life. What others take to be deficiencies in organisations and institutions, Fatalism identifies as the fickle finger of fate. Fate has no favourites. It brings down the mighty from their thrones, but on a whim it also turns the humble into lottery winners . In brief, it upsets all our plans equally. Just as Hierarchical policy sees the world as a hierarchy and seeks to make it more so, and Egalitarianism and Individualism do the same, so Fatalist policy sees a world controlled by fate and seeks ways of making it even more controlled by fate. Since fairness is an unrealistic expectation the best form of distribution is seen as the lottery, whether the random allocation of jurists or the random allocation of school places.

Implications for policy reform

Some advocates of equality sound as though their chief strategy is to turn everyone into an Egalitarian. Given that there are four competing cultural biases which seem to be necessary to describe the ‘possibility space’ of human relationships, the prospect of establishing a monoculture of Egalitarianism seems unlikely.  A more fruitful approach may be to further explore what equality means in each of these four cultural contexts and then seek to further implement equality as an inherently multi-faceted entity, rather than as a monolithic one. Further, we should be moving away form the idea that only some groups are truly interested in fairness, or that certain groups lack a sense of responsibility for others which would otherwise enable them to understand the demands of social equality. Rather, we need to recognise a series of very different kinds of commitment to the concept.


Ashley, Jackie (2009) The battle for Labour’s soul starts and ends with equality. The Guardian, Mon 6 July, p. 27

A useful resource list.

And another one.


Chris suggested that the Fabian/Rowntree research findings might have been overtaken by public opinion on 1) corporate bonuses in the financial sector following big government bail-outs and 2) the UK’s ongoing paliamentarians’ expenses scandal. In both cases those with plenty of money already are seen to be gaining more by means that are hardly transparent. I agree the ground may have shifted on what counts as fair. But for me this raises a queston: if Grid-group cultural theory provides a typology of four competing dynamic world-views, to what extent, if any, can it account for changes over time in the balance of power between them?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s