borispicBoth the Daily Mail and The Times (£) gave lots of space today to edited versions of Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies. (You can read the unedited version on the CPS website here.) This is unusual as the speech was on Wednesday night. It would normally be old news by now. But it is proving something of a “slow burn”. Attentive readers of this site will already have seen that Mark Wallace liked it while Iain Dale didn’t.

Mr Johnson is a brave man. On April 18th 2007 I attended a meeting in City Hall with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. It was for representatives of Conservative-run London boroughs. The meeting was “positive”, even deferential in tone (everyone calling him “Ken”, laughing at his jokes, implicit acknowledgement of the likelihood of him being re-elected, wine was served.) I tried to strike a sour note as best I could.

At the time there was no Conservative candidate for Mayor of London and the choice was regarded as rather academic – given the foregone conclusion of a Livingstonian third term. That was the basis on which Mr Johnson took up the challenge, and just over a year later, this odds-busting super hero was sitting in the same room looking out of the window, finding that the fate of the city had been entrusted to him.

So given his courage, it is no surprise that Mr Johnson is prepared to contribute to the debate about equality. He included the following comment:

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.

And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: 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 that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.

Iain says this was “inappropriate”. I wouldn’t make such a prissy complaint. I just think Boris got it wrong. Who gets rich is not that deterministic.

Of course, the official Conservative line is that the valid way to get on is through graft. Conservatives, we are often reminded, are “on the side of hard working people”. Karl Marx (and embarrassingly Adam Smith) favoured the “labour theory of value.” It is nonsense. For example, I’m not very good at painting. The picture from Mr Johnson (aged nine) would be better than anything I could manage even if I spend more hours on it than he did aged nine. On the other hand I’m better at singing than he is.

Intelligence (at least in the narrow IQ definition) is not much of a guide either. Lord Sugar is richer than Mr Johnson. But Mr Johnson might well be quicker at a Sudoku puzzle. I know a few rich people and a few brainy people – there is not much in the way of correlation.

This is not to say that hard work and intelligence are irrelevant in succeeding in business. Other qualities – knowledge (as favoured by Michael Gove), luck (as favoured by Simon Cowell), charisma, determination, independent mindedness – probably also help.

So Mr Johnson was wrong to imply a mechanical, causal link between intelligence and wealth. Some of those impoverished Mensa members couldn’t run a whelk stall.

I also think talking about cornflake packets is misleading. It reminded me of a comment by Jamie Whyte in his Adam Smith Institute paper.

Social mobility is a bad thing. Of course, some people benefit from it: all those who move into higher income quartiles. But for every winner there must be a loser. If someone moves up a quartile, someone else must move down one. Social mobility is mathematically guaranteed to be a zero-sum game.

But why should it be a zero sum game? Why should there be a fixed number of working class people or middle class people? Why should we all be stuck in a cornflakes packet swapping places with each other. I see it more of opening the cornflakes packet with zero gravity and letting the flakes float. Politicians should not fret too much about it and just try to keep out of the way.

So far as the point about greed is concerned Mr Johnson was completely misrepresented. Anyone interested can simply read his speech to see. Greed is part of human nature. It is not unique to capitalism. But capitalism is best suited to harnessing that vice with the constraint of voluntary transfer – that we can only advance our material well-being by advancing the material well-being of our fellow man.

A few months after being elected Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher said in a speech in New York:

The pursuit of equality itself is a mirage. What’s more desirable and more practicable than the pursuit of equality is the pursuit of equality of opportunity. And opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal and the freedom to be different. One of the reasons that we value individuals is not because they’re all the same, but because they’re all different. I believe you have a saying in the Middle West: ‘Don’t cut down the tall poppies. Let them rather grow tall.’ I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so. Because we must build a society in which each citizen can develop his full potential, both for his own benefit and for the community as a whole, a society in which originality, skill, energy and thrift are rewarded, in which we encourage rather than restrict the variety and richness of human nature.

The following month in her first Party Conference speech as leader she said:

Now let me turn to something I spoke about in America.

Some Socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a State computer. We believe they should be individuals.

We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else, however much the Socialists may pretend otherwise.

We believe that everyone has the right to be unequal but to us every human being is equally important.

Engineers, miners, manual workers, shop assistants, farm workers, postmen, housewives—these are the essential foundations of our society. Without them there would be no nation.

But their are others with special gifts who should also have their chance, because if the adventurers who strike out in new directions in science, technology, medicine, commerce and industry the arts are hobbled, there can be no advance.

The spirit of envy can destroy. It can never build.

Everyone must be allowed to develop the abilities he knows he has within him, and she knows she has within her, in the way they choose.

Boris Johnson is less of an ideologue than Margaret Thatcher. They each put the case for inequality in their own way. However, both have shown courage in making that case.

We are equal before the law (in this country). We are equal in the eyes of God (across the planet). But in other respects we are gloriously unequal in countless complicated ways. There was an excellent book entitled Equality by Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption which explored these themes.

This is a debate that Conservatives need to win yet have ignored for too long. Mr Johnson is to be commended for getting stuck into it.

46 comments for: Making the case for inequality: Let’s open the cornflakes packet

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