Posts in which bloggers write as if dictating a new weltanschauung to obedient masses are generally popular with no one but themselves. Parents fear that kids play Grand Theft Auto and become violent thugs and readers fear that bloggers will study Hayek, Rawls and Badiou and start behaving as if they have keys to the future. Still, a couple of posts ago I mentioned being a “nonegalitarian leftist”. I do not claim to be a member of any section of “the left” as it exists as a real world force, still less a representative of any of them, but I thought I would write a few notes on where I stand in relation to it on this issue.
Contemporary socialists and liberals often believe that egalitarianism is not just an ambition to be sought but a fact that underpins our existence, and presume that variations in behaviour and abilities are consequences of our environments alone. Owen Jones, for example, calls the notion that genetics play a role in determining one’s intelligence “poison”. Well, it appears to be true – as confirmed, in recent times, by Professor Ian Deary and his colleagues. [This was an unfair reading of Jones, as acknowledged here.]
This can be hard to swallow. The Marxist philosopher Nina Power has claimed that the idea that “everyone is equally intelligent” is “something to be presupposed”. No, it isn’t. No more than the age of the universe or chemical structure of plants. The question demands evidence and the evidence we have suggests that we are born no more equal in our cognitive abilities as in, say, our athletic talents. It is hard to stomach bright-eyed disregard for this when I think of poor kids twiddling their thumbs through bottom set algebra lessons; deprived of the skills they could have put to use in adulthood and left with the impression that their being unsuited to an academic education marks them out as failures.
Despite attributing massive differences between people to environmental circumstances, liberals and socialists often behave as if peoples in vastly different circumstances are pretty much the same. On an international scale, one sees an odd form of egalitarianism in the idea, expressed after every revolution and before every war, that there are frustrated democrats and liberals within all people of the world. That they so often elect authoritarians; give up their voting rights and offer fantastically illiberal views to pollsters must baffle these universalists. Once you have grasped that people raised in very different cultural environments are hardly liable to arrive at the same values and, thus, adopt the same ambitions, though, it makes a lot of sense.
This also has implications for the modern ardency for multiculturalism. People with different allegiances and ambitions are liable to find it hard or impossible to get on with one another. This can be appreciated if one considers the segregation of different communities within multicultural nations, or the discord that erupts when their values and, indeed, persons collide.
The left-wing belief in the need to establish the equality that they can believe we are equipped for has been energised in recent times by The Spirit Level - a book that argued that inequality is at the root of myriad societal ills. I think their enduring attachment to this work is illustrative of ideological biases, given not only the incisive criticisms of right-wing attack dogs but the measured disapproval of left-leaning sociologists like John Goldthorpe, who says he “read through the book [with] increasing dismay”, and Colin Mills, who judged that the authors “appear not to be playing it straight with [their] readers”. This is not to say that inequalities are not sometimes unjustifiable and ameliorable but that I see little evidence to prop up the belief that material inequality is the pervasive deleterious force that it is held to be.
Yet I still feel inclined towards values and policies that I associate with left-wing politics. Firstly as bright people starved of resources and attention need access to both if their potential is going to flourish; secondly as less bright but still industrious and emotional human beings do not deserve hardship on the basis of their being less gifted and thirdly as the very rich are liable to exploit and embezzle us quite regardless of our personal traits. Equality, however, while desirable and attainable in some areas of life, is not a value that is fundamental to my beliefs. It can be impossible to realise quite regardless of its hypothetical appeal, and thus the struggle to achieve it can, I think, inhibit efforts to conserve and improve.