The Unmerited Merits Of Merit

Oh God it’s the Red Tories.No equality in opportunity | Phillip Blond and John Milbank | Comment is free | The Guardian

Paradoxically, what we need is a new synthesis of the traditional left’s emphasis on addressing economic inequity and the old right’s concern with justified inequality. In terms of the former, it is impossible to provide equal opportunities for children without improving the existing outcomes of the lives of their parents. We need a new political economy that will distribute resources more evenly and give working people greater assets and confidence, thereby ensuring a better start for their children.

The modern left scarcely addresses this need. Instead, by vaguely implying that all inequality is bad, it remains impotent in the face of a persistent inequality that is both merited and unmerited. But common
sense tells us that inherited inequality is in part the result of economic injustice and in part the result of disparities of intelligence, skill and application. Currently the left tends to admit the latter truth for future practice, but to deny it in their theoretical account of the past.

It can escape this contradiction by embracing the “old Tory” view that privilege is not just reward for success, but also a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue. By virtue we mean here a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of wider society.

I haven’t come across such obnoxious neo-feudalist bollox since I read Zizek and Milbank’s The Monstrosity of Christ, which is probably the biggest pile of crap I have ever read in book format, apart from maybe Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. These two seem to be part of some sort of Tory wheeze to present a Conservative government as softer, more compassionate than the likes of Maggie Thatcher. If the Tories get elected, I imagine they will fade into insignificance once again, free to write introductions to GK Chesterton novels or whatever.

I mean ‘inequality that is both merited and unmerited’: what sort of cod-theological quackery is that? Let’s say that I enjoy substantial health and wealth by comparison with a subsistence farmer outside the European Union as a direct result of EU policies, both for me and for him. Is that inequality merited or unmerited?

It seems, according to these two chancers, that it’s both. So you have the inequality imposed by economic injustice. Which is, one imagines, unmerited. But you also have inequality, according to them, on the basis of ‘intelligence, skill, and application’. That is, if some degree of my prosperity is on account of my intelligence (a socially defined property) then to the extent that this has enabled me to earn enough money to buy a bit extra foie gras at the weekends, something my subsistence farmer counterpart, with his lower intelligence, would not be able to buy if he could be somehow transported into my skin and situation, this is merited inequality.

That is, I deserve being able to stuff my face, whereas my subsistence farmer friend would not. But not only that: my subsistence farmer friend also deserves me being able to stuff my face. Inequality is a relation, after all. If it is unmerited, it is an unmerited relation between two parties, not merited by one and unmerited by the other.

This may seem harsh, but I can reassure myself with the knowledge that he will never fully understand why this is justified, on account of his inferior intelligence, but this does not matter, since the inequality of itself is a lesson to him: by seeing me scarf down my deep-fried foie gras, he will learn to aspire to higher things. And if he’s not happy with that, we can get Douglas Hurd or somebody to explain it to him.

Frankly, I prefer Maggie Thatcher. At least she didn’t piss down your back and tell you it was raining.

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January 2010

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