Equality

 

Equality is a mistaken ideal. It misses the target and muddies the waters. All too easily it becomes the politics of envy. Instead of worrying about there being others who are well off, we should be concentrating on how to ameliorate the condition of those at the bottom of the heap.

 

My father spent sixteen years as a slum priest in Portsmouth. It was a mission set up by Winchester, which my father visited regularly to report on what he was doing. In a sermon he once gave the sad news that the cricket ball had been lost. One boy in the school then gave his whole term's pocket money to buy a new ball. Not only could cricket be played again, but there was a sense of heart-felt concern which is often missing in modern welfare schemes.

 

My father's ministry was in the early twentieth century. But much earlier Winchester had supported missions in London, Bromley and finally in Portsmouth, where from 1885 to 1896 Father Dolling, who later wrote Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum, ministered to the poor and hopeless. The initiative came not from above, but from the boys themselves. In 1876 the prefects wrote to the Headmaster, asking him ``to take immediate steps to enable the school to assist in Home Missions''. Inequality in wealth and privilege was no bar to concern for the poor and needy.

 

Those who nonetheless demand Equality are muddled. I cannot just demand Equality: I have to specify Equality in Respect of What. If it is equality in respect of height, I shall find very few of you who are my equals: but if it is equality in respect of weight, I shall be bracketed with quite a lot of you---indeed there will quite a number who will look down on me as a light-weight, and say `I am heavier than thou'

 

Once we consider the different equalities we might demand, we see that there are worse inequalities than inequality of wealth. Since men value power and prestige as much as the possession of wealth, it is foolish to seek to establish an equality of wealth on egalitarian grounds. It is foolish because if we do not let men compete for money, they will compete all the more for power; and whereas the possession of wealth by another man does not hurt me, the possession of power by another is Inherently dangerous. If we are to maintain a strict equality of wealth we need a much greater apparatus of state to secure it and therefore a much greater inequality of power.

 

Inequality of power is much worse, as we have seen in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. It is bad being poor, but better have bloated plutocrats than omnipotent bureaucrats. Even if I have only a little money, it does enable me to say No to the official who would like me to have sex with him, or go on a party rally. The poor do not have enough money, but they do have some, and have a real, though limited, freedom of choice.

 

The poor today are still poor, but they are a lot less poor than in time past. They have TV sets, cars, mobile telephones, tablets. And they have these thanks to there having been rich men---William Morris, Bill Gates, Steve Job. If, in the name of equality, they had been prevented from getting ahead and making money, we should all be a lot poorer---like those living under communist rule in Eastern Europe. The only way we can all be equally wealthy is for us all to have no wealth at all. If everybody has nothing, then we are all equal---but very very poor.