Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Conservative social justice caucus - can we strangle this at birth please.


The great philosopher of "it's not fair", John Rawls can, I suspect, be blamed for planting the seeds of what is now called 'social justice':

“Historically one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to insure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. Disparities in the distribution of property and wealth that far exceed what is compatible with political equality have generally been tolerated by the legal system. Public resources have not been devoted to maintaining the institutions required for the fair value of political liberty."

We haven't got a 'just society' because the stuff isn't distributed fairly. And, in the ultimate philosophical cop out, Rawls made 'fair' and 'more equal' mean the same thing. So society - which Rawls conflates with government throughout his work - must act to make things more fair in order that all can enjoy liberty.

Our problem, however, isn't with Rawls but rather with this idea of 'equality' and the way in which it plays out in our society. Indeed Rawls stressed that 'the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance' - justice is quite literally blind to race, gender, class, ability or any other characteristic. In the real world, of course, such a practice is essentially impossible. Most obviously this is true where society has an ingrained or institutional racial, gender or other bias (think apartheid South Africa or the antebellum US south not the campus of a liberal arts college). The problem is that the advocates of social justice have set out to create, instead of that 'veil of ignorance', a sort of checklist of 'fairness' that must be completed before any rule is passed, statement made or comment spoken.

You can, I hope, see the problem here and indeed the point at which the idea of social justice runs full tilt into other important ideas like liberty, democracy and choice. If the somewhat warped interpretation of Rawls that's popular in some circles is used, the result is a sort of soft (and sometimes not so soft) authoritarianism. On top of Rawls' concern about the distribution of wealth and income is piled a host of other inequities - of race, sex, gender, ability, history and place. So even when they are among the wealthiest and highest income, in Rawls' terms the most privileged, some individuals by dint of being black or female or gay or ill remain the victims of social injustice (that must be challenged and righted).

It's in the context of this understanding that I was fascinated by this announcement:

...a private group of Tory MPs has formed to try to help develop a stronger social justice agenda in their party which might help the Prime Minister – and whoever succeeds him – develop a proper Tory plan for tackling poverty. Its members describe the group as a ‘compassionate Conservative caucus’, and it includes an interesting bunch of members, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Alistair Burt, David Burrowes, Stephen Crabb, Ruth Davidson, and Nadhim Zahawi. Number 10 officials also attended the group’s first meeting, which took place yesterday afternoon in Parliament, and included a talk from Bill Gates on tackling global health inequalities.

Now this, in terms of the Conservative Party, is a pretty powerful group seemingly committed to tackling 'injustices in society' and, interestingly, an ‘all-out assault on poverty’. This is, in many respects, the language of social democracy rather than conservatism. Indeed, if it is joined by the sort of agonies of language explored recently by Maria Miller, we see a significant element within the Party shifting towards a progressive 'liberal' (in the American meaning) agenda and away from what we'd more usually see as a conservative platform.

Unless that is, the agenda is to redefine the idea of 'social justice' - to escape from the straightjacket of campus identity politics, diversity top trumps and the closing down of speech for reasons of faux-offence. Perhaps this helps:

For many decades, under successive Governments, UK poverty has been defined narrowly by a measure of national income inequality. That is to say, households have been classified as living in poverty if they fall below a set income level, typically taken at 60 per cent national median income. Although this technique can be helpful in mapping low income areas, it is an arbitrary measurement of poverty, which reveals little about the reality of life in low income communities, and it offers no explanation or understanding about the root causes of poverty.

This - from the Centre for Social Justice - is a very different take on social justice. For sure, it's still about the injustice of persistent poverty but rather than seeing the problem as one of prejudice or exclusion because people belong to a group that suffers injustice, the CSJ sees the problem much more in terms of lifestyle - family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency, addiction and debt. It's the old line rewritten - 'finish school, get a job and keep a job, get married and stay married'.

Now, while I'm not wholly convinced by the 'muscular christianity' of the CSJ's approach, it does have the merit of being a recognisably conservative agenda. The failure of some within society results from failure of institutions rather than the structure of society. Although some of the CSJ rhetoric seems quite judgemental, its core message is that the state should pay attention to stable families, better schools, job creation and the promotion of a 'good' lifestyle. This is the very antithesis of both the social justice idea derived from Rawls and also the concept of a liberal, open society. It also rejects that Thatcherite virtue - a small state serving a strong society. For the only way for politics to right the failings of those institutions (families, schools, employers, lenders) is for government to intervene.

These Tory social justice warriors with their 'compassionate conservativism' and love for state intervention represent a step back to paternalism and perhaps a worrying indulgence of the authoritarianism that has become the hallmark of left wing politics. I'm all for an all out war on poverty but we rather know how to beat it (clue - look at 200 plus years of free markets) but if this comes wrapped with the so-called 'social justice' that's crushing free speech in our universities, creating division from diversity in our cities and privileging group rights and group think above individual liberty then I really think it needs strangling at birth.


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