Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Passion for Equality

Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Passion for Equality

Article excerpt


by Robert W. Fogel

University of Chicago Press,

17.50, pp. 382


by John Wilson

The Smith Institute, 14.95, pp. 114

Tel:0207 592 3629


by Peter Singer

Weidenfeld, 5.99, pp. 69


by Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott

Yale, 8.95, pp. 296

A hurdle which some of us face with even the most serious political books is that they are written for people of the author's own persuasion. Others are welcome to eavesdrop. But there is little effort to persuade those outside the stockade. These four books are written ostensibly for readers who are either 'on the Left' or who believe in equality or who hold both positions. Books written from the other side are often no better in this respect. They assume that the reader is a conservative and either philosophise about the true nature of conservatism or discuss what Conservatives need to do to be saved, or at least to win a few more elections.

But it would be a pity if dislike of this private conversation were to put off readers. All of these four books have something important to say irrespective of the reader's politics and it is worth making the effort to disentangle their arguments. The most substantial in every sense is Professor Fogel's. He is a distinguished economist and economic historian and a Nobel Prize winner. He has made his name by applying quantitative techniques to the study of history, most notably in his path-finding book on the economics of American slavery.

He is, however, very loose in his use of the term egalitarian. He believes that egalitarianism has been the defining American belief. This might surprise the visitor to the US who is driven from the centre of Manhattan to Westchester, being careful to stay on the motorway and avoid the Bronx. He says at one point that the chief egalitarian inspiration is a feeling of injustice at the high rewards for those with most wealth and income. If that is so it makes the creed one of envy or resentment and a very peculiar beacon for the idealist, the compassionate or the radical. In fact he does himself quite an injustice. For the bulk of the text shows that he really has in mind nothing more than a widening of political opportunities and a concern for those with least opportunity, income or power.

He discerns four 'great awakenings' in US history and traces their religious as well as their political roots. The first great awakening is simply the 18th-century revolution against the British. The second comprises the rise of the abolitionist movement and developments like women's suffrage. The third is symbolised by Roosevelt's New Deal and was an attack on big business corruption and the wealth of the rich, combined with reforms to improve the position of the working classes.

The novelty of Fogel's approach is his view that we have now entered a fourth awakening in which there is much less need for cash redistribution or traditional welfare services and much more need to combat the spiritual discrepancies between relatively affluent middle America and the underclass. He associates this awakening with campaigns for more emphasis on ethics in school curricula and even the revival of fundamentalist religion which others associate with the right.

Fogel does not find it easy to think of ways of reducing differences in spiritual resources. As he admits:

Even if they desire to do so, those rich in virtue, in the family ethic or in benevolence could not transfer spiritual resources by writing out cheques denominated in virtue, benevolence or family solidarity.

In the end he falls back on the cry 'education, education, education'. It is not surprising that this particular road to virtue should be so emphasised by academic writers.

In fact he is most interesting on what he calls 'left over third awakening issues', for instance the increase in income differences since the early 1970s. …

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