A friend recently asked me why political types disagreed so vehemently about politics, and at the time I couldn’t actually tell them despite being a self-confessed political anorak. In hindsight what I wished I’d said is that whilst political difference is often construed as an issue of either personality or policy, true political difference lies in how we each understand the nature of causality. Those on the left frequently explain something by reference to prior factors and causes. Naturally it follows (for them) that society can know all social determinants, the state can equalise the outcomes of all, thereby delivering social justice. However, to those of us on the right equality of outcome is political anathema. It’s seen as an inherently unjust project given that people do not exercise their freedom and palate of choices in an equally diligent manner. We see the role of government as limited to creating a coherent set of incentives for individuals to help them choose a life that allows them and their families to flourish. People’s very sense of moral agency comes from causal connection they make between their personal choices and the life they subsequently lead.
By looking at causality it’s possible to understand why the Tories and Labour tend to dominate particular issues irrespective of the political cycle. Labour “owns” the issue the NHS not only because it set it up, but because the general presumption of the public regarding healthcare is consonant with the leftwing insight that someone’s predicament (health) is generally unrelated to the personal choices they make. By contrast, crime and justice issues relate largely to how –collectively- we are to judge the choices that people make. Not surprising therefore that on these issues it’s the Tories who dominate the political space. The genius of New Labour’s slogan “Tough on crime tough on the causes of crime” was not only that it stole a march on Tory territory but that it married the right and left’s understanding of causality in a novel way, capturing support across the philosophical spectrum. Criminals and determining factors of crime were to be jointly and vigorously tackled.
The catchphrase of today’s middle ground is “equality of opportunity.” In short this consensus position acknowledges both the truth behind the left’s observation of our “accident of birth” and the right’s view of adult inequality as an emergent feature of choice. Despite widespread support for this principle we don’t seem to have a political system designed to cultivate it. Features of our state include patchy youth intervention programmes, a high marginal rate of taxation throughout our working lives, and universal benefits for older voters.
Surely though in a society of “equality of opportunity” it should be the young who are in receipt of universal services and not those just past 60? Yet our PM continually cuts the services of the former and protects those of the latter. It makes no sense for society to ignore the inequality of provision of services given to children only to later indiscriminately hand out benefits once the trajectory of life has been set. This state of affairs penalizes children never given the tools to succeed in life and adults who have used their freedom diligently. To believe in a society in which there is “equality of opportunity”- the philosophical middle ground- is to believe that benefits should be at their most unconditional at the beginning of life and most conditional at their end; with a necessary level of provision throughout. The absurdity of millionaire pensioners receiving free TV licenses arises out of the fact that it is the old who vote, and the old who organise themselves into affective special interest groups and it is the young who remain at arm’s length from the entire political process. Until this changes the hope of a society in which there is “equality of opportunity” will remain nothing but a political mirage leaving both left and right disappointed.