So Boris Johnson has caused a kerfuffle with his jibe “The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.” According to The Guardian “Johnson mocked the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 as he called for more to be done to help the 2% of the population who have an IQ above 130.” Johnson’s intention, according to The Independent was a call to “a new generation of Brits to embrace greed and snobbery as a ‘valuable spur to economic activity’ during a speech where the London Mayor paid tribute to Thatcherism.”
In Johnson’s rambunctious manner, not only did he put his finger on the direction of future political schisms in terms of ideology, but he also set the battle-lines for a geographic tussle that could split the nation along a north-south divide, or more specifically a South East and the rest-of-us-divide. Big stuff, you might say, but then an antagonistic case has to be made as an alternative to Boris’ essentialisation of inequality and the moral and geographic determinism on which it is founded. The Telegraph quotes Johnson as saying “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses and so on that it is a valuable spur to economic activity.”
Let me point to a couple of features of this discussion that might lend them to the response that needs to be articulated in opposing this latest salvo of the ideology of muscular liberalism that Johnson represents. The Spirit Level argument is one notable starting point, based as it is on the proposition that the more unequal a society is, the worse it does in terms of economic performance. The recent OECD report into levels of literacy in the developed world, highlights the correlation between degraded levels of equality and the reduced levels of performance in basic skills. Put bluntly, the more unequal the resources of society are shared, the less likely that people will achieve the requisite levels of capability that will enable them to play a role in an economically dynamic economy, thus making us all poorer.
Johnson’s belief is founded on a moral fundamentalism that sits at the heart of muscular liberal thinking. It was expressed bluntly by Boris, and runs along the lines that it is each individual’s strength of aspiration and the extent to which they are willing to strive in the marketplace which justifies the rewards that they receive. This is an a priori worldview in which the moral virtue of the striver goes without challenge. The wealth creators get where they do, not because of luck, privilege, bias and the platform that was put in place from which they can operate, but instead because they are de facto morally superior and therefore deserve the rewards they get. The winners in our society get the wealth they have because they are due the reward for being better people than the rest, is the argument. They are, as Johnson describes, the ‘cornflakes’ who are capable of rising to the top of the box, and they deserve to be there.
What this argument ignores, though, is the fact that the cornflakes box is riddled with bias, hurdles and barriers that keep the lower cornflakes in their place, and enable the cornflakes that start off from a higher vantage point to maintain their differential place. The undeserving cornflakes, by contrast, can only expect to remain in the lower part of the box because they are accordingly held to be morally inferior. In Johnson view those at the bottom of the cornflakes box lack the ambition and the moral drive that the strivers possess, and so they must know their relatively subordinate place and keep within the segregated layers that suit their status in life. All the lower cornflakes can do is watch with envy as the morally superior cornflakes enjoy the rewards and opulence that comes with their inherent moral value.
Except, the conditions in which the cornflakes that rise to the top are not so clear-cut. As a philosophical mind-game I can see the sense in arguing that those who are capable of rising to the top are able to do so, but only if those who are at the top are equally capable of losing their foothold and falling to the bottom. This would be a virtuous cycle of replenishment based on merit, but I don’t think Boris is actually arguing for that to happen, is he? How radically Thatcherite it would be if Johnson argued for a dismantling of the mechanisms of wealth perpetuation? If Johnson was arguing that we should take apart the infrastructure of privilege and pre-selection that is inherent in the British social and economic system, then I might be willing to accept his argument as a worthy challenge to the prevailing social order. One that many other radicals could support.
Rather than calling for the expansion of the selection process in education and the widespread return of the grammar school system, Johnson would instead, if he was genuinely Thatcherite, argue for the removal of all forms of selection based on social bias. He would introduce lotteries and the redistribution of resources so that those with the innate IQ (if such a thing is possible), wherever they are found, could realise their potential based on an equal ability to compete based on merit. This is not a world in which who your parents are would make any difference. Nor would the connections your family have in the professions make any difference. Nor would your ability to pay for additional tutoring, or to go to private schools, or to receive any financial and status benefits that the state offers in terms of tax breaks above those of the average. Without sounding like a communist, Johnson’s moral economic radicalism would call into question the structural protection of property rights and the reinforcement of inheritance regimes.
But Johnson is calling for none of these things. Instead he is pandering to the South East mind-set in which those people who live in one part of the country that have benefited from the post-war, mid-twentieth century, geo-political realignment. Johnson is their champion and wants them to continue to benefit. Before World War Two the wealth of the UK was created in its Northern and Western industrial regions. Coal mining, steel, textiles, wool, manufacturing and shipping, was focussed on Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool. The South East was essentially an agrarian bread-basket. London was a port and a centre of banking. The latter half of the Twentieth Century saw a reversal of these fortunes, with London primed as a service industry hotspot by Thatcher and Blair. The shift in geo-political power was due to the closer integration of Europe and the development of information based technology services. The rest of the United Kingdom was left to fend for itself. Industrial policies were restricted. Regional policies were emasculated. The independence of our once mighty northern cities was curtailed. No wonder the Scots are voting for independence!
If you owned land or property in the South East of England its value increased in the post-war period purely by a coincidence of geography and economic realignment. This increase in value had nothing to do with the individual appetite of people to strive, or the moral virtues held by the people who had ownership of these lucky assets. It was a lottery win. Purely a chance win in the lottery of life. Being in the right place at the right time. But Boris Johnson doesn’t want you to think about this. In Boris’ world the wealth was created by people who wanted it more, and who would do anything to maintain their relative differential with fellow citizens. This political and economic difference could be magically wished away, because they could more readily be reduced to a moral justification that maintained the relative structural differentials whatever the cost.
This greed is good mentality is based on ensuring that other people can’t compete,being cut off from a fair distribution (pre- and post-) of resources. Usually taking the form of admonishment, people are berated for not pulling their socks-up, getting on their bikes or being skivers, despite the fact that relative effort does not receive a proportional outcome. Employment displaced people aside, many people under this system are able to work less and still receive more, regardless of the the relative moral status of their claim.
The legions of Borisbots who invest in the South East of England do so because the tax breaks are generous. The Council Tax remains unreformed, despite the gross unfairness of the ratings system and the fact that there hasn’t been a market re-evaluation since it was introduced in 1992. As a property tax this scandalously takes money and demand away from the diminished north and further pump-primes the south-east. Likewise inheritance tax remains unchallenged and is shot-full with so many loopholes that money cascades from one generation to another with barely a murmur. Our judiciary and senior positions in the civil service remain full of people drawn from private schools. The elite universities continue to be stuffed with people from privileged backgrounds. You can see where I am going.
Yet if you are bright and from a modest background, your chances are squeezed. Paying for tuition fees, the removal of Educational Maintenance Allowances, the Bed Room Tax, hikes in public transport costs, the increase in under-employment, temporary contracts, a hire-and-fire attitude with no protection and little access to law and redress. Credit has fuelled the feel-good factor. Property speculation is being driven up to further boost economic activity in the South East. The Bank of England is slamming on the breaks in the hope of stopping the bubble bursting. Michael White of The Guardian warns Watch out, Boris. You are playing with fire – fire that may be tempted to burn down Eton just to prove it’s on the people’s side.”
So less of the lectures about the moral virtue of greed please Boris. If you really want to be a radical you will have to challenge the sacred-cows of conservative England, and the perpetuation and retention of wealth and opportunity by a diminishing super-elite. The level of inequality that we have in the United Kingdom is unsustainable and will lead to the social bonds being stretched to the point of no return. This is not a way to build a sustainable economy and it is not the way to justify what are otherwise morally reprehensible, deterministic and borderline fascistic comments about the individual capabilities of our fellow citizens. No doubt Boris can relate this to ancient Greece or Rome better than I can, all I would say is that we must be beware polybian demagogues!
[Update] Andrew Rawnsley has followed this story in his column in The Observer, in which he points out that Boris is repeating a well established trope – one played out in Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. Rawnsley points out that “the real problem here is with the implied conclusion that the poor are poor because they are born stupid, the rich are rich because they spring from the womb destined to be that way, and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it except to urge the wealthy not to be too “heartless” and let a few of the talented poor into the elite.”