Where do we start?

I have few objections to any of the articles I have read in the Centre for Policy Development about fairness, distributional justice, or broad questions of social policy. There is a widespread constituency which shares these views and, as is plain, nearly all those who write for and to the Centre for Policy Development are part of that constituency. The puzzle for me is how to develop these views persuasively for those who are not yet part of that constituency, and those who are actively opposed to it.

That is particularly important when one is trying to influence people in the political domain, which includes ourselves as voters as well as our political representatives and those who act for them, like public servants. In my experience, one runs quickly into disputes about ‘equality’ and what flows from our conceptions of equality.

The first course of lectures I gave in ‘political science’ some forty years ago was called ‘Six Tired Concepts’, and one of them was ‘Equality’. These big and apparently simple concepts prove to be frustratingly difficult when you try to use them as a basis of policy. But if you don’t try there is no advance at all.

There are two domains in which ‘equality’ is pretty straightforward, and not much disputed. One is ‘equality before the law’, the notion that whatever your status in life, and no matter who your father is, you are subject to the law like everyone else. The other, much more recent, is that we all have only one vote each, and on polling day your vote is no more important than mine.

Of course, all of us can find examples of how Mr Bigge Shott was let off a drunk-driving charge, or how rural voters have more actual weight in their votes than those who live in cities, or how those who live in safe seats for one side but want to vote for the other side feel frustrated at their lack of power. But by and large we think that the system here is pretty right.

There is much less agreement about ‘equality of opportunity’. This is an equality that politicians always agree is important, but quite often act to disregard. You can see that in education and health most obviously. Press people hard here, and you’ll find that they start from an acceptance of a fundamental inequality.

They will tell you that their child is just brighter or a better footballer or a sweeter singer than others, and deserves even more attention for that reason. The notion that others should be brought up to the same standard seems to them a shocking waste of money. Their child should be allowed to shine.

They start, so it seems to me, on the basis that inequality is built in, and that a good society should take advantage of it, by developing the gifted, whose talents and gifts will benefit us all in due course. Before we snort in contempt, we need to remember that the whole basis of free university education was built on just such a supposition.

In two articles on the assumptions underlying education (Rethinking Education and Rethinking Education Continued) I have argued that what we have seen in the past fifty years suggests strongly that human beings are born with essentially the same gifts and talents. If this is the case, then we need to ensure that each child is enabled to develop these talents. Why? Because all children will be equally worthy of development, and because it is cheaper to develop them early than it is to remedy later the costs of not doing so.

Persuading people that children are indeed born equal is therefore a necessary preliminary to getting them to agree that equality of opportunity must be a primary value for governments. But, as I argued also, that does not make for easy policy, because as a society we allow the business of making children to be an intensely private matter, with the result that the education system has an almost impossible task before it. Children arrive at school after five years of hugely variable upbringings. How can the schools provide equality of opportunity then?

A fourth equality, that of ‘outcomes’, is even more fiercely contested. I have problems with it myself, partly because we construct so much of our society in terms of ‘winning’. While there can only be one winner, equality of outcomes seems almost a contradiction in terms. I’m not opposed to winning, but I am opposed to elevating it into a kind of universal mantra.

If equality of outcomes is seen, however, as a kind of standard that all are expected to reach, the standard is (for the sake of argument) the attainment of competence in a number of capacities and at least the beginning of competence in some others, and the attainment does not have to be completed by age 16 (or whenever) then I can see a way forward, if only dimly.

The general point in all this somewhat abstract discussion is that we live in a society where certain kinds of inequality are in fact proclaimed and admired. Winners are lauded, losers are reviled. When something bad happens to a ‘winner’ (a star footballer accused of rape or drug possession, or a businessman like Rene Rivkin or Alan Bond is exposed as a crook) there is a temptation on the part of some to say that we should be lenient here, because we are dealing with someone who is special.

And the difficulty with what I propose myself is that we all regard our own children as special, our own professions or callings as ‘different’ (and therefore deserving of special treatment), our own perspectives as more accurate (far-sighted, compassionate, what you will), than those of other people. You will travel a long distance in Australia to find true equality of respect.

But it is that last equality that is the key. We have a relatively well-educated Australian society which could engage in discussion and argument on the fundamentals of our present and future society. But any decent discussion requires a capacity to listen to that which is disagreeable while we await an opportunity to put another point of view.

As some comments in the Centre for Policy Development, let alone those in the press and talk-back radio, make clear, we have a long way to go. It’s easy enough to talk to those who share our perspectives, much more difficult to reason with those who see things very differently. But there’s good evidence on our side. Let’s marshal it and talk up the basis for equality of respect and of opportunity, which underpin good policies for a whole nation, not just the fortunate few.

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