Adam Lent is Director of the RSA Action and Research Centre. He is currently writing a book, Small is Powerful: Why the era of big government, big business and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing).
Conservatives are not exactly friendly towards the idea of greater economic equality. A recent article by Bruce Anderson, for instance, expressed the right’s deep visceral objections.
Anderson’s main argument is that a desire for greater equality is in stark contrast to a belief in the free market and a limited state. You can only be for one or the other and the left is for the former and the right, the latter.
If the recent monstering of Thomas Piketty is anything to go by, Anderson seems to represent the views of many Conservative thinkers but he also, unwittingly, reveals how the right is as thoughtless about the issue of equality as the left.
In particular, both right and left seem equally ignorant of the fact that the ideal of equality was around for a very long time before it was forced into a close association with the big state.
Many Conservatives, for example, look back to the American Revolution as an inspirational moment that saw the launch of the world’s most successful capitalist democracy. It may, however, come as a shock to Conservatives that the Founding Fathers were committed egalitarians who saw no contradiction between their vision of a limited state and greater economic equality.
For men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, gross inequalities of wealth were a severe threat to the creation of a functioning republican democracy. A world in which an elite control the greater part of an economy’s assets would inevitably result in political corruption as the rich seized control of the state. This would lead to servility or alienation on the part of the poor and middle class. A worryingly prescient view given the political travails now afflicting many advanced economies.
However, the egalitarianism of the Founding Fathers was very different to the one that dominates today. They believed in more equal shares of a nation’s capital. The modern left focuses almost exclusively on greater equality of income delivered by a central state and monetary transfers.
The difference is crucial. The more individuals hold capital, the more they are freed from the control of bodies such as the state. By contrast, the left’s current vision of equality, which the right has implicitly accepted in its hostility, requires constant state intervention to redistribute income from wealthy asset owners to those who have less capital.
Margaret Thatcher: Egalitarian
Ironically given her iconic status in the Conservative Party, it was Margaret Thatcher, more than any other modern politician, who understood the significance of this distinction.
In her 1986 party conference speech, she claimed her goal was to “spread the nation’s wealth among as many people as possible”:
“We Conservatives believe in popular capitalism—believe in a property-owning democracy … The great political reform of the last century was to enable more and more people to have a vote. Now the great Tory reform of this century is to enable more and more people to own property. Popular capitalism is nothing less than a crusade to enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation. We Conservatives are returning power to the people”.
It may seem heresy to both right and left but Margaret Thatcher was an egalitarian. She unequivocally believed in a wider distribution of wealth across the population. And she understood, just as the Founding Fathers did, that without a nation’s assets being owned by “as many people as possible” all other aims such as greater individual freedom and democracy were meaningless rhetoric.
So, Conservatives should reject self-satisfied tilting at left-wing windmills and set themselves a much tougher but more important task: understanding how to encourage a wider distribution of asset ownership without having to rely on the interventions of the state.
For the likes of Thomas Jefferson and his political descendants in the nineteenth century Republican Party, the answer to the question was clear: distribute state assets as widely as possible into the hands of individuals and small business while resisting attempts by big business to concentrate capital ownership under their control.
Because modern Conservatives have lost sight of the egalitarian impulse, the modern versions of these policies have not been imbued with a sufficiently radical spirit and have failed to ignite popular enthusiasm.
Privatisation, far from creating mass asset ownership has become a bonanza for the biggest businesses – see, for example, the way just sixteen ‘priority investors’ were offered a vast swathe of Royal Mail.
Home ownership which was spreading throughout the population for the last century – helped in some part by Right to Buy – has been shrinking over the last ten years.
And while the Conservative Party may talk a good game on challenging monopolistic practices by big business, the monetary policies they support have only strengthened the hold of the City over the economy while government procurement – such as the recent Probation Service tenders – still awards contracts overwhelmingly to established multinational suppliers.
Thatcher recognized that greater equality of capital ownership is not only a good in itself but is a fundamental imperative if the free market is to survive. If those who are committed to small state, market principles cannot explain how such institutions lead to a more equal economic settlement than we currently enjoy, then they are immediately conceding the point to the statists.
In short, the future of individual freedom and the market do not rely on shrill condemnations of the egalitarian ideal but the shaping of a truly Conservative vision of equality.