Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Liam Shields on Anglo-American Fairness and the State of the Union

As an Englishman who has recently moved to the US, I am constantly confused by aspects of American life. For instance, I don’t understand tipping, I am always surprised when I am asked how I would like my hamburger cooked, and I am especially flummoxed by the US political system, which seems designed to make change impossible. Nevertheless, I believe I have stumbled on something we have in common, an ideal of fairness that is worthy of discussion.

In Barack Obama’s recent state of the union address he promised decisive action to address inequality. He promised to expand opportunity for more American families and to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.  “What I believe unites the people of this nation ... is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all - the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead” he said. This idea is one that resonates far beyond the USA. Indeed, it is strikingly similar to how some Conservative members of the British government present their mission: as “rebuilding the economy for those who work hard and play by the rules”. The core idea is simple and fairly clear: Any citizen should secure a good standard of living if they work hard and obey the law. Let’s call this Our Ideal.

I believe ours is a sound ideal and if it were better realized in the US and UK they would be much fairer places. However, there are two aspects of Our Ideal that we may find somewhat surprising. First, Our Ideal is not robustly egalitarian since its realization is compatible with huge inequalities. Instead, it aims at making people sufficiently well-off. To illustrate this point, imagine Bert and Ernie. Bert earns a decent living as a nurse and Ernie is a stockbroker who earns one hundred times as much. Both work hard. Both obey the law. Both earn a decent living. Many egalitarians would find this inequality unfair, but it cannot be condemned by Our Ideal.

Second, though not robustly egalitarian it is an ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’. It specifies the obstacles (unwillingness to work hard or obey the law) that may legitimately obstruct citizens’ from obtaining some good (a decent standard of living). Citizens have an opportunity for that good since they can work hard and obey the law or not. The good is neither unachievable nor guaranteed. However, Our Ideal has very radical implications of which our politicians may not be aware.

In societies like ours there aren’t enough decent jobs for everyone who is qualified, let alone everyone who works hard and obeys the law. Instead, co-citizens compete with one another to secure jobs that are necessary for most of us to secure a decent standard of living. When there are more hard-working law-abiders than jobs, some of them inevitably miss out what Our Ideal states is rightly theirs. Our Ideal cannot easily be reconciled with this competitive model of job allocation.

Our Ideal requires a radically different type of economy; an economy in which either i) anyone can secure a well-paid job if they are law-abiding and hard-working or ii) there are significant unemployment benefits for hard-working law-abiders who can’t get work due to the market. I take it that the best route to realizing ‘Our Ideal’ is to ensure that people are in work rather than on welfare. If we are serious about ‘Our Ideal’ then there are at least two things we can do.

First, we need to ensure there are enough jobs for every hard-working law-abider. This requires an increase in the supply of jobs. To achieve this government could become an employer of last resort or make it easier for those in well-paid jobs to decrease their hours without sacrificing a decent wage. The following example provides some illustration. Some people in very well-paid jobs may prefer to have free time and work half the hours for half the pay. Another person, who would otherwise be out of work, would likely be willing to work the remaining hours. If every well-paid job was like this, and if individuals could be adequately trained, this proposal would effectively double those well-paid jobs. Second, these jobs must pay enough to meet the decent standard of living. This could be achieved by increasing the minimum wage or by reducing the costs of having a decent standard of living. Because purchasing power fluctuates, wages must keep up with inflation and the cost of a decent standard of living. Alternatively, tax credits or transfers for those paid less than the minimum wage would have the same effect.

There may be some pleasant side-effects of pursuing Our Ideal. Rather than competing with one another for jobs and a decent standard of life, depending for our success on others’ failure, we might view one another in a different way, and see our own success as compatible with, rather than opposed to, their success. For when there is a scarcity of jobs we view our fellow citizens as a threat, rather than a compliment, to our own good. This new relationship might help arrest growing alienation from politics and society in general, especially among young people.

I draw on ideas in the following articles and books:
Paul Gomberg, How to Make Opportunity Equal: Race and Contributive Justice, 2007, Blackwell.
Julie Rose, "Money Does Not Guarantee Time: Discretionary Time as a Distinct Object of Distributive Justice." Journal of Political Philosophy (2013).
Peter Westen, "The concept of equal opportunity", Ethics 95.4 (1985): 837-850.

Dr Liam Shields is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford Universit, working on a Spencer Funded Project on Equality of Opportunity in Education. Dr Shields also holds a faculty position in Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. He is an alumnus of the University of York, where he read for the MA in Political Philosophy (The Idea of Toleration) in 2008-9, funded by a scholarship from the C & JB Morrell Trust.

Liam Shields tweets at @PhilosopherLiam

Anyone interested in applying for a Morrell Trust scholarship for MA studies at the University of York in 2014-15, should consult these pages:

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Adam Fusco on Toleration and the flag over Belfast City Hall

On the 3rd of December 2012 a vote was held by Belfast City Council to remove the union flag from the dome on top of its city hall. An amended vote was passed by a council majority of nationalists with the support of the non-aligned Alliance Party. A compromise was reached in line with the flag-flying policy at parliament buildings at Stormont – the home of the Northern Ireland assembly. The flag will be absent for the majority of the year, except to mark specific occasions such as the Queen’s birthday, as a gesture to unionists. This solution is one that connects to the philosophical ideal of toleration.

The flying of the union flag has been a long-standing controversy in Belfast, as one can imagine, even in the current post-conflict scenario, where religious identity still acts largely as a synonym for one’s political affiliation. The flag has been a permanent fixture on top of City Hall since its opening on its current site in 1906. But with demographic change in the city and a particularly well-fought election campaign on the part of the nationalist Sinn Féin (and a bad one by the Ulster Unionist Party), in 2011, for the first time nationalists outnumbered unionists on the council, with the non-aligned Alliance party holding the balance of power between the two.  This meant that a motion was inevitably going to be brought to council to see the union flag, a symbol that is by most accounts only representative of the half the city, taken down.

This brought vociferous loyalist protest on the evening of the vote (see, for example, the report here). The protest reiterated the long-standing unionist commitment to the flying of the flag over city hall. The argument being that the union flag flies over every city hall in the United Kingdom by convention. So to remove the flag is to undermine the status Belfast that has as a United Kingdom city. 

This of course was countered by nationalist politicians who argued that the flag is by its very nature divisive. Nationalists have long contended that city hall is a public space and has to be, because of this very fact, an inclusive space for all the citizens of Belfast. This means that regardless of the symbol’s positive affirmation of U.K. cityhood for unionists, the flag has to be removed because it alienates and excludes nationalists.

These arguments, however, somewhat cloud the use of symbolism as a demonym for national-political ideology in Irish/Northern Irish politics. Unionists intrinsically value the union flag because they are unionists plain and simple. Many nationalists, particularly those of the Republican stripe, would most likely, when hard-pressed, like to see the Irish tricolour fly over city hall. Real-politick suggests however that no union flag, as a second best, is a better and more achievable option for nationalists than the status-quo. It is more realistic than the preferred option of the tricolour alone, which is an unacceptable position for unionists to ever accept.  

Indeed one of the mooted options during the consultation was to fly both the union flag and the Irish tricolour simultaneously side-by-side (see here). This was appealing to many nationalists, and even some unionists, but ultimately rejected because for many unionists – even though it would give parity to both traditions – it would ultimately symbolically legitimise the political presence of the Irish Republic in Northern Ireland.

Symbolism has a political potency in Northern Ireland politics that some in Britain may find hard to comprehend. What might seem trivial elsewhere has real political value, because symbols of British/Ulster and Irish nationalism have real meaning in the inter-relationship between religious and political identity. The compromise reached involves genuine toleration, like a lot of the political paradigm in Northern Ireland. For the union flag to have remained would have been an unacceptable solution. Unionists could have contended that nationalists should tolerate the flag, but this would have in meant in practice unionists failing to show toleration for nationalists' opposition of the flag. In this sense the flag remaining would have been a plainly intolerant move. This would have again been true if nationalists had pushed for the tricolour to be flown over city hall, a move that would have not found support from the Alliance Party, and quite likely from the moderate nationalist S.D.L.P. (and perhaps even in practice a pragmatic Sinn Féin).

But what of the equal recognition of both traditions, by having two flags? This is a move that does not solve the problem with reference to toleration; it is one that affirms difference. The problem with this solution is that it affirms and essentialises identity. Such a solution solidifies the fact that Protestantism equates with a unionist/British/Ulster identity and Catholicism with a nationalist/republican/Irish identity in Northern Ireland. The tolerant solution provides a political stabiliser that allows these forms of normatively contingent identification to be transcended. Unlike the Alliance Party position, which uncritically makes the assumption that both unionist and nationalist politics are sectarian by their very nature, rather what is sectarian about these forms of identifications is the idea that one is a unionist because they are Protestant and one is a nationalist because they are Catholic. But unionism and nationalism have the capacity however to both be non-sectarian ideals. It is because of this that toleration works as a means, that should be absolutely welcomed in this instance, to move towards a natural accommodation of difference, where politics can be conducted without reference to the constitution and persons can be seen not in terms of their identities, however configured.

Adam Fusco, originally from Belfast, is a PhD student at the University of York, and a graduate of York's MA in Political Philosophy (The Idea of Toleration), for which he was a recipient of a Studentship from the C & JB Morrell Trust.  His research focuses on questions of national identity, their role in contemporary citizenship, and Civic Republican theory.  

Friday, 12 October 2012

Professor Sue Mendus on press regulation, the limits to free speech, and the Leveson Inquiry

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
thank God! The British journalist
But seeing what the man will do
unbribed, theres no occasion to (Humbert Wolfe)

In July 2011, and in the wake of the News International phone-hacking scandal, David Cameron set up an Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. This Inquiry, the Leveson Inquiry, has recently completed its formal hearings and is expected to publish its recommendations in November. What did Lord Justice Leveson hear and what should he now recommend? 

Leveson heard evidence from 474 witnesses of whom over 200 were classed as media or PR. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these were extremely wary - even suspicious - of the Inquiry and of the recommendations which might emerge from it. Some referred to it as a show trial, while others feared that it would (and will) result in recommendations for extensive curbs on press freedom. Mr Michael Gove MP, himself a former journalist, went so far as to claim that the very existence of the Inquiry had a chilling effectGove on Leveson's "chilling effect". He advised Leveson to avoid recommending additional legislation, and he told the court that freedom of speech doesnt mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.

Well, we can all agree on the importance of free speech, but before endorsing Mr Goves advice to Leveson, lets pause for a moment and remember how we got here. The Leveson Inquiry was not set up because the press had offended some people (though it had). It was set up because significant sections of the press had used their freedom to: intercept the voicemail of a murdered teenager, make corrupt payments to the police, publish the private diary of a bereaved mother, and disclose the medical records of a Prime Ministers son. They had also - allegedly - conspired to pervert the course of justice. All this is a very long way indeed from causing offence to some people, and Mr Gove must surely know that it is.

In particular, he must know that the real danger in Britain today is not that press regulation will undermine the freedom to offend. The real danger lies in the fact that press power is concentrated in the hands of comparatively few people, and those people have persistently used their power to benefit themselves and their political friends, while damaging and discrediting their political enemies. When this happens, a so-called free press can quickly become an anti-democratic weapon which the powerful use to foist their own political preferences on an under-informed electorate. That is the real danger and, sadly, there is nothing new about it.

More than half a century ago, giving evidence to the 1947 Royal Commission on the Press, the National Union of Journalists (no less) conceded that only restriction of liberty would remedy the abuses of the press which were prevalent at that time. The same abuses are even more prevalent now, and it falls to Lord Justice Leveson finally to call a halt to them. My own hope is that he will recommend an end to the farce of self-regulation which is the Press Complaints Commission, and a strengthening of the existing anti-monopoly laws which did nothing to contain Rupert Murdoch's ambition and which almost allowed him to gain control of BSkyB. It is here, if anywhere, that hope for freedom lies.

Professor Sue Mendus
Sue Mendus is Morrell Professor Emerita at the University of York. 

Her departmental webpage can be found here. In 2004 she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and from 2008 to 2012 she was Vice President (Social Sciences) of the Academy. She is a Founding Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.

Her written and oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry can be found here: