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October 11, 2010

Will Hutton's Them and Us isn't just big and rambling, it's not well thought through - argues Richard D. North: Them And Us: Changing Britain - why we need a fair society -Will Hutton

Posted by Richard D. North

Them And Us: Changing Britain - why we need a fair society
by Will Hutton
Pp. 434. London: Little, Brown, 2010
Hardback £20

The state Will's in
The last few years seem to have treated Will Hutton very well. The icing on the cake was that David Cameron asked him to report on income inequality, albeit in the public sector rather than the economy as a whole. He's had a good Credit Crunch and recession: Newsnight and Channel 4 News have accorded him guru status and on the whole he has made a decent and not-too lefty fist of his commentary. He's seemed to enjoy and mock the media nonsenses that he takes part in, sometimes laughing heartily at the ironies and paradoxes of it all. I have even heard him say (if I caught it right) that some of his earlier ideas may have been a bit too gloomy about Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

Fairness trumps egalitarianism
On the whole, then, I was prepared give Them And Us a tolerant hearing. Indeed, I heard Will Hutton outline its thesis on BBC Radio 4's Start The Week and it sounded positively tempting. The argument went like this: egalitarianism is not the best approach to political economy, but fairness is crucial to society. How to square the circle?

Well, Will said, we should play to long-established ideas about the way that much of the good fortune of the rich is a matter of luck as is much of the misfortune (literally) of the poor. The state should help the unlucky share in the good fortune of the lucky.

The political appeal to a right-winger of this idea is that it might upstage the left's devotion to the idea that an absolute equality of income is desirable and all the compromises of practical politics are merely unfortunate deviations from the ideal of egalitarianism. It may even weaken the god of "social justice" which often turns into the notion that equality before the magistrate can somehow be translated into equality before the bank manager. It might undermine the dreary sense of entitlement which social justice accords the poor as their tribunes gain licence to plunder the rich.

So far, then, so good for the non-socialist mind and so good also, one might suppose, for the new compassionate Tories. (By the way, I am pleased to find that Robert Skidelsky in the Guardian mostly finds the same problem with Hutton's fairness arguments as I do.)

I don't suppose that Will Hutton means it in this way, but deploying fairness might also steer the public away from the idea that there is some special point in reducing inequality, as though it was bad for all of us, even those at the top of the tree. Indeed, it is interesting that Hutton's new book does not cite any of the literature, or even the ideas, on this theme which are currently dominant in the political discourse of the left and (more surprisingly) the Notting Hill Tories. That's to say, there is no de Botton or Spirit Level or Oliver James or Phillip Blond here. There isn't even much Richard Layard, though Will Hutton works with the great man.

Yes, but….
All this is good news. But the more I read the book, the less I liked it. Partly, it seems too big and diffuse for its own good. One reason for this may be that Will Hutton has got a researcher. This, I think, often produces the effect that an author has a mountain of juicy morsels of information and can't resist bunging them all into his text.

The fault may be that the enterprise is simply too large. Will Hutton wants to design a capitalism and a politics which encourage an open, entrepreneurial society which is capable of sustaining a steady, growing economy and a fair and proportionate distribution of the spoils. Indeed, he argues that in modern circumstances the three are interdependent. But beyond the need to supply a more educated, or slightly happier, workforce, it isn't clear from the book how the idea of equality (sorry, fairness) feeds into a sound economy.

This book isn't just big and rambling, it's not well thought through. Even on the fairness issue, Will Hutton is in a pickle. It turns out that he wants (thank goodness) to maintain a fairly traditional idea of "just deserts". This is very un-communist: it challenges the merit of doling out benefits according to people's needs; their contribution - their effort, their willingness - matters too. He seems to understand that the problem with leftists is that they are inclined to de-emphasise the role of free will.

He then - it seems to this rightist - falls into the mistake he has just identified. That's to say, Will Hutton finds himself borrowing every argument he (or his researcher) can find which emphasises how the poor are born poor and get stuck in poverty and the rich are born rich and are stuck in affluence. We get all the new-old stuff about how social mobility has ground to a halt in Britain, and how

we must never collectively surrender the principle that social spending brings enormous benefits.
But whilst some of this is true, much is contestable. Not least, as was emphasised by Gareth Malone's BBC TV series Extraordinary School For Boys, the new-affluent amongst the ex-working class have not the smallest realisation that parents matter to education. Their boys were in receipt of expensive education provided by the state, but were sent to their daily studies with no understanding of why success at them might matter.

But we also find Hutton back-tracking. He insists that "tough-love" is good stuff, and that the poor need somehow to be encouraged to dole it out to their kids, as essayed by Demos, the think-tank.

What about the undeserving poor?
Indeed he says, and it is a rightwing sort of thing to say, welfare must leave intact the idea of reward for effort. So he still allows us the idea of the "deserving" poor.

In a typical muddle, Will Hutton implies the deserving include nearly every poor person:

The poor are still held back by multiple layers of disadvantage that they are forced to confront through no fault of their own. They should never be considered undeserving of help unless it can be determined without a shadow of doubt that they have put in zero effort and have deliberately played the system.
True: the worst of the welfare problem is that the least deserving need the most help.

Having fallen for cliché as to the problem, Hutton then seems clumsy in his description of the remedy. He implies social investment is almost always good. He says New Labour was a good government because there was a lot of it. But he is rather stuck here: his book is mostly an account of a decline in the prospects of the very poor. He puts this down to a decline in the social estate (for instance, what little public housing remains is the fag-end of the old council housing resource), and to the Toryism of New Labour's economic management.

This Anglosphere society
In short, Hutton seems to demand higher social spending but gives us a muddled and sketchy recipe for spending it. We are not even given a picture of how any of this is to be sold to the public. Hutton cites evidence from the Fabian Society that

51 per cent of respondents thought that inheritance tax should be abolished altogether, while another 20 per cent felt that the threshold should be raised from £250,000 to at least £500,000.
Hutton says (I heard a cross booming note in his voice):
The liberal left must move them back if asset-based welfare is ever to have adequate resources.
It may be cognitive dissonance or denial or misplaced aspiration, but Britons seem to be more like Americans than they are like Swedes or socialists. Who knew?

It's enough to make you rightwing
Oddly, I find reading Will Hutton makes me more rightwing than I was to start with. If this is the best that can be done with the nice idea of fairness, then it is maybe not a very good one. It seems obvious that it is a pity that there is the misery of poverty and it seems equally obvious that the well-off ought to do something about it, if they can. But I get all Hayekian when I see the freedom of the rich abused egregiously by the state. And I get all Tebbitian when I consider how demoralised the underclass have become, even in the face of bags of welfare.

It is quite possible that we don't really need a very moral view of how to deal with poverty. Indeed, Will Hutton's very ambitious book seems unintentionally to suggest a way through our poverty thinking. He argues that modern capitalism only works if there is a fully-developed society around it. That is probably true, but even the old capitalism didn't need an inarticulate and disaffected lumpen. Either way, it might quite suit the majority of society to abolish the underclass and possibly the working class too. They are in their different ways unnecessary and even damaging to the rest of us as well as themselves. Sorting them out will probably be expensive and there will be a bit of argey-bargey as to who should pick up the bill. Fairness will come into that, but so will efficiency.

So too will liberty, which is an unfair animal. So too will culture, which develops differing ideas about fairness. We don't need to assess the amount or quality of welfare the poor need according to fairness, equitability, proportionality, or just deserts. It isn't kindly, but it may be much more effective and less patronising, to think of the poor as a nuisance to be solved.

I fear Will Hutton is barking up the wrong moral, philosophical and political trees when he addresses the redistributive society. As to his arguments about a stakeholder capitalism which is better regulated, indeed fairer: they looked pretty thin and old-hat. I don't doubt they're in the mix, amongst the zillions of other wheezes which left-of-centre reformers hope will win the day. Any reader of the FT will have chewed through dozens of op eds on this sort of thing. Along with other chapters on media and much else, these passages didn't really earn their place in a book on them that have and them that don't.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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