Think beyond income redistribution

By Daniel Zamora

We need a new understanding of equality. Equality is not about a fair share of income but about public access to housing, education, work and culture for everyone. Narrow claims for cash won’t deliver any return to normalcy.

In 1929, Richard Tawney, one of the most influential economic historians of his era, was invited to give a series of lectures on the topic of equality. In the context of one of the worst crises in the history of capitalism, the English historian tried to convince his audience that only a collective perspective on the matter could truly free mankind from necessity. “The equal division of income per head”, he argued, “is not a satisfactory expedient for increasing equality”.

As surprising as it may seem for us today, to him equality was more than just the “the division of the nation’s income” into equal amounts of money for everyone. To be effective, an egalitarian policy was required to radically expand social rights outside of the market. Meaning, to guarantee everyone not a certain amount of money but public access to housing, education, work and culture.

The argument relied essentially on the observation that a society driven by private investment and individual consumption wasn’t able to fulfil most social needs. “High individual incomes”, Tawney wrote, “will not purchase the mass of mankind immunity from cholera, typhus, and ignorance, still less secure them the positive advantages of educational opportunity and economic security”. “No individual” he added, “can create by his isolated action a healthy environment, or establish an educational system which diminishes a wide range of economic insecurity, or eliminate the causes of accidents in factories and streets”.

Think again about how we can imagine a society that goes beyond just income redistribution.

We can’t, he added with a degree of irony, calculate “the contribution to culture of the reading room of the British Museum” by simply “dividing the annual cost of maintaining it by the number of ticket holders”. In other words, if the state had sent a check to every citizen rather than create museums or a system of public education, the result of individual spending decisions wouldn’t have increased democratic access to culture and education. Collective decisions had then a specific value insofar as they compelled us to shape the society we live in together.

To Tawney, equality was therefore about more than just money, it was about granting citizens the ability to democratically build collective institutions that reflect the values they cherish. Such purpose naturally implied the existence of a vibrant civil society and a network of institutions such as trade unions, parties or associations organising citizens in ways that enabled them to translate their needs into collective demands.

Equality = more equal consumers?

While Tawney’s argument was quite common in the mind of social reformers at the beginning of the century, it is at odds with our contemporary understating of inequality. His views, largely dominant in post-war years, would decline in influence by the turn of the 1970s and slowly discredit the legitimacy of the state as an economic actor in its own right.

Today, essentially defined at an individual level, inequality is generally thought about as a problem with the distribution of income and wealth between citizens. So, a more equal world would be one where the income gap between the rich and the poor would decrease. Inequality in that sense has nothing to do with the market but only with our unequal ability to benefit from it. Some can buy private planes while others struggle to pay their energy bill.

What we seek when we ask a better redistribution of income is essentially a society with more equal consumers; a society where we don’t alter the rules of the economic game but give everyone a better chance to be part of it – to enable everyone to make the most of it. It constituted a profound reconfiguration of the objectives and institutions that society usually deploys to govern social insecurity; one where criticism of the market progressively disappeared from our vision of social justice.

Our contemporary understanding of equality has radically narrowed our conception of social justice.

A more equal society in that sense would, of course, be a considerable improvement from our current situation. But it nonetheless understands the horizon of equality within the framework of the market. For post-war social reformers, the aim of progressive politics wasn’t to make more equal consumers but to reorganise society so that market logic no longer predominated, which reduces the grip of the market on people’s lives.

Our contemporary understanding of equality has, therefore, radically narrowed our conception of social justice. A shift that has largely accelerated, moreover, the strong retreat of the political sphere, which undermines the arena of civic life – meaning the very conditions under which democracy can function.

Such a setback should lead us to think again about how we imagine a society that goes beyond just income redistribution. Especially in the era of Trump, war, global warming and inflation, where it seems irrevocably obvious that narrow claims for cash won’t deliver any return to normalcy. The time of apathetic citizens more focused on private concerns than the immense public issues we face may (hopefully) be coming to an end. Fewer and fewer people are prepared to leave the economy to market forces or technocrats.

Only together as a society will we be able to not just redistribute some cards but to profoundly alter the rules of the game.