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Is Clegg abandoning liberalism?

A political philosopher sees Lib Dem leader and the Coalition Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's praise of social mobility as the lodestone of liberalism as a fast-one of a different kind.

If you announce in advance what you are going to say at a lecture you expose yourself to other lecturers examining your principles beforehand, as Stuart White of Oxford University does here, cross-posted with thanks from Next Left

Nick Clegg's efforts to shift the philosophical orientation of British liberalism, pitching its tent squarely on the terrain of the centre-right, continues apace with his article in today's Guardian (trailing his Hugo Young lecture tonight).

Having already conflated the liberal ideal of independence with the Thatcherite ideal of 'self-reliance', Clegg now tries to differentiate between an 'old progressivism' of income equality (bad) and a 'new progressivism' of social mobility (good):

'Social mobility is what characterises a fair society rather than a particular level of income equality. Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation....For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barrier to social mobility is.' (Emphasis added.)

As Sunder has already pointed out, the contrast conveyed in this passage is questionable on a number of grounds. Sociologically, social mobility is affected by income inequality. If you care about social mobility then you have at least an instrumental reason to care about limiting income inequality even if you think it unimportant for its own sake.

And as a matter of intellectual history, few, if any, progressives have cared about reducing income equality rather than social mobility, as Clegg suggests. They have cared about both as ends in themselves.

Indeed, what is striking is just how far Clegg's attempt to define 'fairness' as social mobility rather than reduced income inequality breaks with the mainstream social liberal tradition. Whatever Clegg's 'new progressivism' is, it isn't mainstream social liberalism.

When it comes to the major figures of recent liberal political philosophy, such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, the point is obvious.

Rawls argues that the economic justice of a society is to be judged in part by how far it achieves 'fair equality of opportunity': roughly, people with similar natural abilities and motivation should have similar chances of occupational success regardless of their parents' background. This corresponds closely to Clegg's goal of social mobility.

But Rawls also famously argues that fair equality of opportunity by itself does not make a society just. For even with this kind of meritocracy, people with poorer natural endowments will fare worse in terms of income and wealth than those more fortunate in the genetic lottery. A just society must therefore seek to limit inequality of reward between jobs and offices as well as achieve a high degree of social mobility in competition for them.

Dworkin puts the point particularly forcefully when he argues that the conventional idea of equal opportunity, the kind Clegg celebrates under the heading of social mobility, is, by itself, 'fraudulent':

'…people are not equal in raw skill or intelligence or other native capacities; on the contrary, they differ greatly, through no choice of their own, in the various capacities that the market tends to reward. So some people who are perfectly willing, even anxious, to make exactly the choices about work and consumption and savings that other people make end up with fewer resources, and no plausible theory of equality can accept this as fair. This is the defect of the idea fraudulently called 'equality of opportunity': fraudulent because in market economy people do not have equal opportunity who are less able to produce what others want.'

The implication, as for Rawls, is that conventional equality of opportunity must be accompanied by efforts to reduce the inequality of reward between people who, through no fault of their own, have unequal productive or earnings capacity.

If we focus on British social liberals like J.A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse we also see, again, a clear concern for the distribution of income as an important dimension of economic justice as well as equality of opportunity or social mobility. Both devoted a lot of attention to the question of what a just structure of rewards would look like, an intellectual preoccupation that would be distinctly odd if they thought income distribution unimportant to justice.

Nor can Clegg turn to the great icon of British liberalism, J.S. Mill, to support his view of fairness as a matter of social mobility rather than income equality. In his Autobiography, Mill sets out how he understands the core intellectual challenge to liberalism:

'The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.'

In other words: how can we combine liberty with equality? And what Mill means by equality is not (merely) equality of opportunity but clearly involves some degree of equality of resources - 'equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour' conjoined with 'common ownership of the raw material of the globe'.

So on one side we have Nick Clegg, the self-styled 'new progressive'. On the other side, we do not really have any 'old progressives', for, as Sunder points out, they are a caricatured invention of Clegg's article/lecture with little or no historical reality. Rather, what we have on the other side are thinkers like Rawls, Dworkin, Hobson, Hobhouse and Mill: the mainstream of the social liberal tradition.

The real choice, then, is not between the new and the old progressives.

It is between Cleggism and liberalism.

About the author

Stuart White is a lecturer in political theory at Oxford University. He is interested in democratic political economy and is a co-editor of the e-book Democratic Wealth.

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