The Saturday Debate: Equality of opportunity just isn’t enough

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2010

Here’s your starter for ten as we experiment with a new Saturday slot posing a view for debate:

Belief in equality is, as the preamble to the Lib Dems’ constitutions states, one of the fundamental values of the party. But, as with all values, equality can mean different things to different people.

There has long been tension between liberals who believe the role of government is to aim for equality of opportunity for everyone, and liberals who believe government must promote equality of outcomes. The former will tend to stress the importance of education as the chief means by which individuals can better themselves and improve their lot; while the latter will argue that yes, education is vital, but ultimately life chances are determined by income – and the poorest in society will find life stacked against them no matter how good the educational opportunities, so we must actively promote ways to redistribute wealth from rich to poor.

This is now a very real issue for the party. In years of plenty, it was possible to reconcile these two approaches, to argue in favour of the party ploughing money into (for example) abolishing tuition fees, while also arguing in favour of (for example) real-terms increases in child benefit. But with public funding facing a savage squeeze the Lib Dems now have to prioritise like never before.

So what is the party going to put first? Policies which are most likely to deliver equality of opportunity, or those which will most likely deliver equality of outcome?

Let’s take a practical example. The party has made much of its plans to lift 3 to 4 million people out of tax completely by lifting the income tax threshold to £10,000. As Left Foot Forward has noted this will “result in a £700 tax giveaway to all earners including the wealthiest”. And as Vince Cable has admitted, “it’s redistributive effects may be not quite as radical as you get with tax credits.”

All politicians talk of tough choices. But it’s all tough choices for at least the next five years. We live in a deeply unequal society, where those born into poverty too often are unable to escape its grip. Yes, we should aspire to provide them with a wonderful education. More importantly, more urgently, we need to get serious about true redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. Ofering equality of opportunity just isn’t enough any more.

Agree? Disagree? Comment away …