Egalité without liberté? Non, non, non!

A new army of equality quangos and experts promises to make us all equal – but at the expense of our freedoms and desire to be rich.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

On 20 October 2012, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill spoke in a debate titled ‘What’s wrong with equality?’ at the Battle of Ideas in London. His opening remarks are published below.

Historically, when people talked about equality, they meant one of two things. They either meant political equality – that is, equal rights, the expansion of freedom to more and more sections of society. Or they meant material equality – that is, a rethink of the way resources are created and distributed, the expansion of wealth so that more and more sections of society could enjoy it.

But today, we have a very curious situation where the new equality industry – all those quangos, experts and politicians who present themselves as the guardians of equality – actively undermines those two goals of the old struggles for equality. Today, equality is promoted not as a means of expanding freedom, but of limiting it. And equality is celebrated not as a means of expanding wealth, but as a way of shrinking wealth, or at least making it less ostentatious.

Where once we fought for equality in order to expose greater numbers of people to the gains of freedom and the joy of wealth, now the state and its offshoots promote equality in order to protect us from those things – in order to protect us from the alleged dangers of too much freedom and from the alleged mental distress that comes from wanting too much material stuff.

In relation to freedom: One of the most striking things about our society is how much validation and even adulation the idea of equality receives, and how little the ideal of freedom receives. There are numerous quangos and think-tanks devoted to promoting equality, but hardly any devoted to preserving freedom. Politicians like David Cameron are always talking about how important it is to address inequality, but they never make a loud defence of freedom – in fact, they pass laws that eat away at our freedom.

And not only does our society value equality more than it does freedom – it also uses equality as a tool for undermining freedom. You can see this pretty clearly with the UK Equality Act – the new ‘duty’ of equality that is enforced by government, which some religious and political groups have raised concerns about it, worried that it might be used to attack freedom of conscience and freedom of association.

Just consider the pretty shocking case where the state sought to force the far-right British National Party to rewrite its constitution. The Equality and Human Rights Commission argued that the BNP’s constitution was anti-equality. The constitution broke race relations laws by stipulating that the BNP was open only to ‘indigenous Caucasians’. It failed the equality test, and therefore it had to go.

Now, you might well hate the BNP’s constitution – that’s fine, most normal people do. But what you should hate even more is the idea that the state should have the right to edit or trash the constitutions of political parties. Because if we accept that the state should have that right, then we accept that there is no longer freedom of association or the right to political organisation; we accept that those two key freedoms – the freedom to associate with whom we choose and the freedom to promote whatever political views we like – can be undermined by the state in the name of ‘equality’.

The BNP case showed just how cynical the promotion of equality is these days. There were no queues of black and Asian people demanding the right to join the BNP, a racist party. This was no bottom-up demand for equal treatment – it was a top-down exploitation of the language of equality by a state keen to punish a deviant political party and force it to conform to the state’s values.

Today’s elevation of equality over freedom is bizarre – because freedom absolutely presupposes equality. Freedom is unquestionably a more important value than equality. In fact, earlier generations of fighters for equality saw equality as important only insofar as it allowed for the expansion of freedom. So for the French Revolutionaries – who propelled equality into historical consciousness – the demand for equality was about giving meaning to freedom. It was about making the ideal of freedom a reality by extending it, in Robespierre’s words, to both ‘slave and tyrant’. Equality emerged in the eighteenth century as a means of achieving freedom, which had been discussed as an ideal for centuries, in the living, breathing world.

Today, the use of equality to undermine freedom seriously denigrates both – it denigrates both the purpose of equality, and the meaning of freedom.

Then there is the debate about material equality. Here, too, the meaning of equality has been warped. Where earlier generations fought for the creation of more, in order to facilitate the spread of wealth to all, today’s equality quangos effectively fight for less. For them, equality means everyone having just about enough rather than everyone having an awful lot or all they can dream of.

Their starting point is the idea that desiring wealth is potentially bad for our mental health. They have even invented new diseases to describe the longing to be wealthy – they call it ‘affluenza’ or ‘stuff-itis’. They have pathologised the desire for more. And that’s because their aim is to lower horizons rather than raise them. For them, equality is a kind of therapy for the poor, a tool which should be used to make poor people feel better about the fact that they live on less than others. The new equality quangos are obsessed with lowering the perks and privileges of the rich – with ‘shrinking the pay gap’, as they call it – because their overarching aim is to stem feelings of jealously and out-of-control desire amongst the poor when they see rich bankers swaggering about with champagne and cigars.

This was best summed up by Will Hutton of the High Pay Commission, who recently said: ‘The knowledge that ostentatious consumption is possible has a shadow effect on every British citizen.’ In short, we must protect the poor from the sight of wealth; we must protect them from the harm of wanting things, and we must do this by making the wealth in our society less garish and obvious, by shrinking it, by removing the suggestion that everyone could achieve this standard of living or that it would be desirable for them to do so. This is really about helping the poor acclimatise to the fact that they are poor, by removing riches from their sight and from their minds.

The key problem today is the treatment of equality as an end in itself, as the good, logical end goal of policymaking. In past struggles, equality wasn’t treated as an end in itself – rather, it was viewed as a tool for the expansion of freedom and for the spread of riches. That is, it was about unleashing people’s potential and their individuality by making them more autonomous, both politically and economically; it wasn’t about making everyone the same, with the same views, the same incomes, the same life trajectories.

Today, equality, the end goal of just about every modern policy proposal, is about restraint; it’s about reining in allegedly dangerous freedoms and dampening down material desires. No wonder it is so attractive to the elite: ‘equality’ has become a PC word through which our rulers can limit people’s freedoms and lower our horizons and generally make our ambitionless, slothful society seem principled by describing it as ‘equal’. We should tell them we don’t want to be merely and always equal – we want to be free.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is a transcript of a speech given at the Battle of Ideas in London on 20 October 2012.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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