Central values

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Central values

The term equality has at least three meanings:

  • Legal or formal equality: Everybody is equal before the law, irrespective of birth or social position.
  • Equality of opportunity: Everybody should have equal chances to achieve whatever they can through their own merits (meritocracy).
  • Equality of outcome: Everybody has the same resources and status, irrespective of their talents, efforts and abilities.

These three concepts are not consistent with each other. Hayek (1960) points out that the attempt to bring about equality of opportunity or equality of outcome must undermine legal equality (for example, Labour Party all female shortlists). This is because in pursuing egalitarian outcomes it is necessary to treat people differently, rather than apply the same rules to everybody.

John Rawls

A John Rawls Theory of Justice (1972), considers that if people had to devise a system of distribution without knowing what position they would occupy within it they would settle on two points:

  • Agreement on a principle of equal liberties.
  • Resources allocated equally except where an unequal allocation could be shown to benefit those who end up with least. This means there might be conditions where giving some more than others could ensure that everybody is better off.

Rawls describes this unequal distribution of resources as the difference principle, and argues that it is strongly egalitarian as there is a presumption in favour of equality unless a case can be made for allowing some inequality to emerge.

However, Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), criticises Rawls because people do not make judgements about distribution from a position of total ignorance and innocence. Nozick argues that equality cannot be established on the basis of the actual distribution of goods but whether or not people have established a legitimate right to the things that they own.

Robert Nozick

Nozick is arguing that the existence of inequalities is irrelevant to considerations of social justice. What counts is how goods are acquired. The idea that peoples' possessions legitimately acquired can be taken away and given to someone else is not a realisation of social justice, but the negation of it. Nozick argues that provided we have a legitimate right to our possessions, whether we end up with more or less than others is irrelevant.

Rawls and Nozick identify important considerations for the analysis of inequalities:

  • We cannot assume that inequality is necessarily immoral or socially damaging.
  • Redistribution can itself create injustices.

To show that a society is unequal is not the same as showing it to be unfair.

The problem of the relationship between equality and liberty is developed buy P. Saunders, Social Class and Stratification (1990). He starts by outlining the two basic questions asked by the functionalist sociologists Davis and Moore, Some Principles of Stratification (1948).

  • Do stratification systems perform positive functions in human societies?
  • If they do, does this explain their existence and does it mean that stratification is therefore inevitable?

On the first question, it can be shown that a system of stratification can have positive effects (this does not mean that there cannot, at the same time be negative effects), but this does not mean that the same effect could not be achieved in some other way, there may be alternatives. In other words, to show that something is functional is not to show that it is necessary.

It is possible to imagine a society where all positions are rewarded equally in terms of material resources and formal status, but the problem is then to ask, how would these positions be filled?

The only answer seems to be that some powerful authority would be required to force people into certain positions and police them to make sure they their duties properly. In the absence of economic rewards and penalties the only sanction against those who refuse to co-operate is the threat or use of physical force.

So, stratification based on the distribution of material goods and social status is not the only way of allocating people to positions in society. Coercion, repression and terror could achieve the same objective.

Milton Friedman

These are, argues Milton Friedman (1962), the only alternatives:

'Fundamentally there are only two ways of co-ordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion - the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals - the technique of the market place.'

Most societies seem to rely on both techniques. Capitalist societies rely more on the market and so they have greater inequalities than socialist societies. But, socialist societies are seemingly (to some of us at any rate) more repressive.

Equality and liberty are incompatible objectives, to have more of one we have to sacrifice some of the other. Egalitarianism is attainable only at the cost of individual liberty. We have to choose our balance between these values because we cannot have all of both.

There is a continuing dispute as to whether welfare should be the overriding goal of society.

This is because:

  • There is difficulty defining the precise meaning of the concept.
  • There is, following from above, the problem of measurement.
  • Scepticism concerning the claim that values form a hierarchy with welfare at the top.

There is, for example, a tension between utilitarianism, which is collectivist in its subordination of all other moral considerations to the welfare maximising imperative, and classical liberalism, which stresses the inviolability of individual rights. The anti-state stance in liberal thought derives from the claim that any statement concerning what is good for society, that ignores individual desires, is fundamentally misconceived.

Robert Nozick argues:

'There is no social entity with a good that undergoes sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people with their own individual lives. Using one of those for the benefit of others uses him and benefits the others.'

This is another version of the Thatcher claim that there is no such thing as society.

In this approach justice is limited to actions that protect individual rights and justly acquired property.

A second liberal argument against state involvement in welfare is that in a complex society there are a variety of values and we have no innate reason for ranking them in any particular order. People may choose to donate to welfare but it should not be a demand made by the state for redistributive justice.

To contemporary thought justice and welfare seem to be closely linked, that the one (justice) implies the other (welfare). Rawls, in his Theory of Justice, argues that justice is the first virtue of a society and that it should take priority over welfare. However, he also argues that the distribution of resources is just if it is to the benefit of the least advantaged.

Inequalities are permissible to the extent that they are necessary for the generation of a surplus for redistribution.

Friedrich von Hayek

Hayek, objects to the very idea of social or redisdributive justice because, in his view, justice and injustice can only be attributed to the intentional actions of human agents under fair rules applicable to everyone. Since society is not a person, it is thus absurd to speak of it acting justly or unjustly. Any one person does not intend the distribution of income that results from the actions of individuals, so no one can be morally responsible for it.

In a famous comparison, the result of market processes, because they cannot be foreseen and are unintentional, are likened to the weather; no one would, for example, claim that the distribution of sunshine between Britain and Spain was unfair, precisely because it is a fact of nature. Hayek claims that incomes are natural in a sense of not being planned; and although they can be altered, such action will have unanticipated consequences.

What Hayek is pushing us towards is an acknowledgement that the concept of desert is irrelevant to the distribution of income. In a market system income is a function of value not merit. All political interference with the market is arbitrary and rests on the mistaken assumption that there is general agreement on deserts and needs, when in a complex society there is no such general agreement.

Hayek does not rule out all welfare, some people will not be able to earn an adequate income because of the low or zero value of their labour and will need extra-market payments. But, these payments are not a matter of justice, but of benevolence, the victims are not entitled to welfare because their distress is not the result of any one's deliberate actions.

Robert Plant provides a critique of Hayek. He argues that although the outcomes of a market process are unintended they can be foreseen. Furthermore, he claims that the meaning of justice is not simply a matter of how things come about but of how we respond to them.

It would be an act of injustice not to correct any market outcome that left people in dire need. And, although a society is not a person it does have an agency, the state, which has the moral duty of alleviating alterable distress. However, we do not have to assume that only the state can fulfil such obligations.

Some research suggests that the market can contribute to equality and freedom. It is suggested, for example, that the market will be far more effective than the state at eliminating excess profits and cutting waste. Additionally, there seems a clear trend to inequality in the consumption of state provided welfare.

The egalitarianism claim that greater equality can be achieved by the common consumption of welfare services, not subject to price or means testing has been challenged.

Le Grand, in a comparison in income and occupational terms of the top and bottom fifths of the UK population, found alarming inequalities in health care, secondary education, university education, tax subsidies and rail subsidies.


The fact that a public service is available to all does not mean all will consume it equally.

Le Grand argues that:

'Policies involving subsidies whose distribution is dependent upon people's decision to consume the good or use the service favour the better off.'

Le Grand reaches the conclusion that, in some cases, it is likely that there would be greater equality if there were no public expenditure on the service concerned - an implicit recognition of the equalising tendencies of the market.

Defenders of state provided welfare services argue that without middle class participation, the poorest would be even worse off. Apparently, it is middle class political pressure that keeps up the public expenditure from which the poorest benefit. This is a strange argument that, in effect, is claiming that the selfish consumption of education, health and housing subsidies by the middle class ensures the survival of the welfare state for the benefit of the poor.


This idea has devastating implications for the argument that welfare institutions tap our resources of altruism.

  • This idea has devastating implications for the argument that welfare institutions tap our resources of altruism.
  • The theory is false.
  • It is most unlikely that there would be no welfare state without middle class participation.
  • The middle class can protect the services from which they benefit.

Le Grand and Godwin claim that in times of reduced Government, spending it is those activities that have the fewest middle class users that are most adversely affected. They use the term beneficial involvement to describe the relationship between the m/c and the welfare state (Not Only the Poor, 1987).

The Welfare State has produced the phenomenon of redistribution of welfare from rich and poor towards the middle-income groups. The results of egalitarian social engineering have been shown to be disappointing.

Adapted from: Welfare, Barry Norman, 1990.