Podium: Some Rules for a Society of Equals from a Lecture Delivered by the Reader in Philosophy at University College, London
Wolff, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)
IN 1929, RH Tawney gave the fourth Halley Stewart Lectures, which were subsequently published in 1931 under the title Equality. Tawney's general theme was that Britain had pretty much burnt itself out as a major industrial force, by this time, and that hope for the future depended not so much on the improvements of techniques of production, as on a reconsideration of why exactly we are producing things in the first place. Tawney is describing a society which, he obviously thinks, is manifestly unequal in many ways. What, in detail, is the remedy for this?
Perhaps Tawney's real view is that while equality of wealth is very important, it is not the most important thing.
I take Tawney to mean that we can put goods into at least two classes. In one class are those where, if one person is to have more, than at least one other must have less. In the other category of goods are those where at least some can have more without anyone ending up with less. At this stage Tawney gives no examples, but consider the good of "a feeling of security". If a neighbourhood feels safe, then someone moving in to that neighbourhood may benefit from an increased sense of security without anyone else suffering a cost of any sort. There is only gain. This dual concern is a constant theme in egalitarian thought, certainly up to Bernard Williams's classic paper The Idea of Equality (1962). Williams argues for the egalitarian view of material distribution, "each according to their need", on the grounds that other policies are insufficiently governed by reason and are thus irrational. This argument was countered with great force by the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick argued that egalitarian theories of distributive justice proceed as if goods fell to earth like manna from heaven; as if all consumable products existed in a "big social pot" and we should sit there waiting for our share to be allocated to us. Consider Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ants. One fine day in winter, some ants were busy drying their store of corn, which had got rather damp during a long spell of rain. Presently, up came a grasshopper and begged them to spare her a few grains. "For," she said, "I'm simply starving." The ants stopped work for a moment, though this was against their principles. …