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1931

Equality: The Religion of Inequality

Societies “convinced that inequality is an evil need not be alarmed because [it] cannot wholly be subdued…Recognizing the poison[, they have] an antidote.”

Equality

By R. H. Tawney. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1952 (Originally Published: 1931), 19-48 (Excerpts).

Chapter One:  The Religion of Inequality

Discursing some sixty years ago…Matthew Arnold observed that in England inequality is almost a religion.  Her remarked on the incompatibility of that attitude with the spirit of humanity, and sense of the dignity of man as man, which are the marks of a truly civilized society.  “On the one side, in fact, inequality harms by pampering; on the other by vulgarizing and depressing.  A system founded on it is against nature, and, in the long run, breaks down.”

Much has changed since Arnold wrote, and not least what he called the Religion of Inequality.  The temper which evoked his criticism, the temper which regarded violent contrasts between the circumstances and opportunities of different classes with respectful enthusiasm, as a phenomenon, not merely inevitable, but admirable and exhilarating, if by no means extinct, is no longer vociferous.  Few politicians to-day would dwell, with Mr. Lowe, on the English tradition of inequality as a pearl beyond price, to be jealously guarded against the profane.  Few educationalists would seek, with Thring, the founder of the Headmasters’ Conference and one of the most influential figures in the educational world of his day, to assuage the apprehension felt by the rich at the extension of education by arguing that “the law of labour” compels the majority of children to work for wages at the age of ten, and that “it is not possible that a class which is compelled to leave off training at ten years of age can oust, by superior intelligence, a class which is able to spend four years more in acquiring skill.”  Few political thinkers would find, with Bagehot, the secret of English political institutions in the fact that they have been created by a “deferential people;” or write, as Erskine May…of the demoralization of French society, and the paralysis of the French intellect, by the attachment of France to the bloodstained chimera of social equality; or declare, with the melancholy assurance of Lecky, that liberty and equality are irreconcilable enemies, of which the latter can triumph only at the expense of the former…

Institutions which have died as creeds sometimes continue, nevertheless, to survive as habits.  If the cult of inequality as a principle and an ideal has declined with the decline of the aristocratic society of which it was the accompaniment, it is less certain, perhaps, that the loss of its sentimental credentials has so far impaired its practical influence as to empty Arnold’s words of all their significance.  It is true, no doubt, that, were he writing to-day, his emphasis and illustrations would be different.  No doubt he would be less impressed by inequality as a source of torpor and stagnation, and more by inequality as a cause of active irritation, inefficiency and confusion.  No doubt he would say less of great landed estates, and more of finance; less of the territorial aristocracy and the social system represented by it, and more of fortunes which, however interesting their origin, are no associated with historic names; less of the effects of entail and settlement in preventing the wider distribution of property in land, and more of the economic forces, in his day unforeseen, which have led to a progressive concentration of the control of capital; less of the English reverence for birth, and more of the English worship of money and economic power.  But, if he could be induced to study the statistical evidence accumulated since he wrote, it is probable that he would hail it as an unanticipated confirmation of conclusions to which, unaided by the apparatus of science, he had found his way, and, while noting with interest the inequalities which had fallen, would feel even greater astonishment at those which had survived.  Observing the heightened tension between political democracy and a social system marked by sharp disparities of circumstance and education, and of the opportunities which circumstance and education confer, he would find, it may be suspected, in the history of the two generations since his essay appeared a more impressive proof of the justice of his diagnosis than it falls to the lot of most prophets to receive.  “A system founded on inequality is against nature, and, in the long run, breaks down.”

Men are rarely conscious of the quality of the air they breathe.  It is natural that a later generation of Englishmen, if they admit that such criticisms may not have been without significance for the age to which they were addressed, should deny, nevertheless, that they are relevant to their own.  On a question of the kind, where the sentiments of all of us are involved, we are none of us reliable witnesses.  The course of wisdom, therefore, is to consult observers belonging to other nations, who are accustomed to a social climate and tradition different from our own, and who are less practiced, perhaps, in the art of not letting the left side of their brain know what the right side thinks.

Anthropologists who study the institutions of primitive peoples are accustomed to devote some part of their work to a description of the curious ritual, by which, among such peoples, the gradations of the social hierarchy are preserved and emphasized.  They draw a picture of the ceremonial distinctions which shelter the chiefs and their families from contact with the common herd of inferior men; of the karakia, the spells and incantations, by which they call down prosperity and provide employment for their followers; of the mana, the prerogatives of sovereignty and jurisdiction, whose infringement will cause pestilence or famine to smite the community; of the tapus which are designed, therefore, to protect the mana from being outraged by the profane.  The centre of the system, they inform us, is the sanctity of class, which has a significance at once economic and religious, and the conviction that prosperity will be blighted and morality undermined if that sanctity is impaired.  And this system, it seems, is so venerable and all-pervading, so hallowed by tradition and permeated with pious emotion, that not only does it seem inconceivable to its adherents that any other system should exist, but, until attention is called to it by the irreverent curiosity of strangers, they are often not even conscious of the fact of its existence.

Not all communities are so fortunate as to become the subject of sociological investigation.  The world is large and anthropologists are few, and the problems of Melanesia and Malaya are so absorbing, that it is natural that science should not yet have found time to turn the full blaze of its searchlight upon Europe.  But, though visitors to England do not pretend to have explored the mysteries of mana and karakia, they sometimes use expressions whose meaning appears to be not wholly remote from that attaching to those formidable words…

Such observers contrast what seems to them, rightly or wrongly, the element of stratification in English social arrangements with the tradition of equality which is the glory of France, where the spirit of an age when the word “aristocrat” was a term of abuse is not wholly forgotten, or with the easy-going democracy of the younger British communities, which have no aristocracy to remember.  They have come to the conclusion that Englishmen are born with la mentalite hierarchique and that England, though politically a democracy, is still liable to be plagued, in her social and economic life, by the mischievous ghost of an obsolete tradition of class superiority and class subordination.  They find in the sharpness of English social divisions, and in the habit of mind which regards them as natural and inevitable, a quality which strikes them, according to their varying temperaments, as amusing or barbarous, or grotesque…

One of the regrettable, if diverting, effects of extreme inequality is its tendency to weaken the capacity for impartial judgment.  It pads the lives of its beneficiaries with a soft down of consideration, while relieving them of the vulgar necessity of justifying their pretensions, and secures that, if they fall, they fall on cushions.  It disposes them, on the one hand, to take for granted themselves and their own advantages, as though there were nothing in the latter which could possibly need explanation, and, on the other hand, to be critical of claims to similar advantages advanced by their neighbours who do not yet possess them.  It causes them, in short, to apply different standards to different sections of the community, as if it were uncertain whether all of them are human in the same sense as themselves.

Mr. H. G. Wells writes that what is called the class war is an old habit of the governing classes.  The temper which he describes, though no longer so aggressive and self-confident as in the past, is by no means extinct.  It continues to find expression in an attitude which deplores in one breath the recurrence of class struggles, and the danger to prosperity caused by class agitation and the intrusion of class interests into politics, and defends in the next, in all innocence and good faith, arrangements, such as those involving, for example, educational inequality, which, whatever their merits, are certainly themselves a cause of class divisions.  It seems natural to those who slip into that mood of tranquil inhumanity that working-class children should go to the mill at an age when the children of the well-to-do are just beginning the serious business of education; and that employers, as the history of coal reveals, should be the sole judges of the manner of conducting an industry on which the welfare of several hundred thousand families depends; and that, while property-owners are paid compensation for disturbance, workmen should be dismissed without appeal on the word of a foreman; and that different sections of the community should be distinguished not merely by differences of income, but by different standards of security, of culture, and even of health.  When they are considering the provision to be made for unemployed wage-earners, they are apt to think it shocking that some men should be able to live without work, even though they have worked all their lives and are anxious to continue working.  But, when they are repelling attacks upon property, they sometimes seem to think it monstrous that other men should not, even though they may never have worked seriously at all.  Without any consciousness of inconsistency they will write to The Times, deploring in the first sentence the wickedness of some sections of the community in pressing for increased expenditure upon the social services which benefit them and their children, and urging in the next the importance of so reducing taxation that other sections may have more to spend on themselves.  As long as they are sure that they are masters of the situation and will hold what they have, they are all kindness and condescension.  Only question their credentials, however, and the lamb becomes a lion, which bares its teeth, and lashes its tail, and roars in every accent of grief and indignation, and will gobble upon a whole bench of bishops, with the Archbishop of Canterbury at their head, if it imagines, as it imagined during the crisis of 1926, that the bishops are a party to laying hands upon its bone.

Swift remarks that mankind may judge what Heaven thinks of riches by observing those upon whom it has been pleased to bestow them.  Those who apply that maxim will be disposed, perhaps, to agree with Arnold’s contention that great inequalities, whatever other advantages they may possess, are likely, at all events, to be injurious to the rich.  But the temper which regards such inequalities with indulgence is not at all confined to the rich, and the belief that it is confined to them, as thought all that is needed, for a different spirit to prevail, were some external change in the machinery of society, is the politician’s illusion.

Clearly, such a change is required, and, clearly, it is coming.  Everyone who is not blind realizes, indeed, that, if the issue between individualism and socialism is merely a matter of the structure and mechanism of industry, then it has, in large measure, already been decided.  Everyone sees that the characteristic of the phase on which the economic system is now entering will, as far as the larger and more essential undertakings are concerned, be some form of unified direction under public control.  But then, if that is all that the issue means, though technically interesting, it is not of any great moment, except to specialists.  Organization is important, but it is important as a means, not as an end in itself; and, while the means are debated with much zeal and ingenuity, the end, unfortunately, sometimes seems to be forgotten.  So the question which is fundamental, the question whether the new organization, whatever its form and title, will be more favourable than the old to a spirit of humanity and freedom in social relations, and deserves, therefore, that efforts should be made to establish it, is the object of less general concern and less serious consideration than the secondary, though important, problem, which relates to the procedure of its establishment and the technique of its administration…

What the working-class movement stands for is obviously the ideal of social justice and solidarity, as a corrective to the exaggerated emphasis on individual advancement through the acquisition of wealth.  It is a faith in the possibility of a society in which a higher value will be set on human beings, and a lower value on money and economic power, when money and power do not serve human ends.  But that movement is liable, like all of us, to fall at times below itself, and to forget its mission.  When it does so, what it is apt to desire is not a social order of a different kind, in which money and economic power will no longer be the criterion of achievement, but a social order of the same kind, in which money and economic power will be somewhat differently distributed.

Its characteristic fault is not, as is sometimes alleged, that the spirit behind it is one of querulous discontent.  It is, on the contrary, that a considerable number among those to whom it appeals are too easily contented—too ready to forget fundamental issues and to allow themselves to be bought off with an advance in wages, too willing to accept the moral premises of their masters, even when they dispute the economic conclusions which their master draw form them, too distrustful of themselves and too much disposed to believe that the minority which has exercised authority in the past possesses a mana, a mysterious wisdom, and can wield a karakia, a magical influence bringing prosperity or misfortune.  Their sentiment is just, but their action is timid, because it lacks a strong root of independent conviction to nourish and sustain it.  If leaders, their bearing not infrequently recalls, less the tribune, than the courtier:  they pay salaams of exaggerated amplitude to established proprieties, as though delighted and overawed by the privilege of saluting them.  If followers, they are liable, with more excuse, to behave on occasion in a manner at once docile and irritable, as men who alternately touch their hats and grumble at the wickedness of those to whom they touch them…

They denounce, and rightly, the injustices of capitalism; but they do not always realize that capitalism is maintained, not only by capitalists, but by those who, like some of themselves, would be capitalists if they could, and that the injustices survive, not merely because the rich exploit the poor, but because, in their hearts, too many of the poor admire the rich.  They know and complain that they are tyrannized over by the power of money.  But they do not yet see that what makes money the tyrant of society is largely their own reverence for it.  They do not sufficiently realize that, if they were as determined to maintain their dignity as they are, quite rightly, to maintain their wages, they would produce a world in which their material miseries would become less unmanageable, since they would no longer be under a kind of nervous tutelage on the part of the minority, and the determination of their economic destinies would rest in their own hands.

Thus inequality, as Arnold remarked, does not only result in pampering one class; it results also in depressing another.  But what does all this mean except that the tradition of inequality is, so to say, a complex—a cluster of ideas at the back of men’s minds, whose influence they do not like to admit, but which, nevertheless, determines all the time their outlook on society, and their practical conduct, and the direction of their policy?  And what can their denial of that influence convey except that the particular forms of inequality which are general and respectable, and the particular arrangement of classes to which they are accustomed, so far from being an unimportant detail, like the wigs of judges, or the uniform of postmen and privy councilors, seem to them so obviously something which all right-thinking people should accept as inevitable that, until the question is raised, they are hardly conscious of them?  And what can the result of such an attitude be except to inflame and aggravate occasions of friction which are, on other grounds, already numerous enough, and, since class divisions are evidently far-reaching in their effects, to cause it to be believed that class struggles, instead of being, what they are, a barbarous reality, which can be ended, and ended only, by abolishing its economic causes, are permanent, inevitable or even exhilarating…

Psychologists tell us that the way to overcome a complex is not to suppress it, but to treat it frankly, and uncover its foundations.  What a community requires, as the word itself suggests, is a common culture, because, without it, it is not a community at all.  And evidently it requires it in a special degree at a moment like the present, when circumstances confront it with the necessity of giving a new orientation to its economic life, because it is in such circumstances that the need for co-operation, and for the mutual confidence and tolerance upon which co-operation depends, is particularly pressing.  But a common culture cannot be created merely by desiring it.  It must rest upon practical foundations of social organization.  It is incompatible with the existence of sharp contrasts between the economic standards and educational opportunities of different classes, for such contrasts have as their result, not a common culture, but servility or resentment, on the one hand, and patronage or arrogance, on the other.  It involves, in short, a large measure of economic equality—not necessarily in the sense of an identical level of pecuniary incomes, but of equality of environment, of access to education and the means of civilization, of security and independence, and of the social consideration which equality in these matters usually carries with it…

It is obvious…that the word “Equality” possesses more than one meaning, and that the controversies surrounding it arise partly, at least, because the same term is employed with different connotations.  Thus it may either purport to state a fact, or convey the expression of an ethical judgment.  On the one hand, it may affirm that men are, on the whole, very similar in their natural endowments of character and intelligence.  On the other hand, it may assert that, while they differ profoundly as individuals in capacity and character, they are equally entitled as human beings to consideration and respect, and that the well-being of a society is likely to be increased if it so plans its organization that, whether their powers are great or small, all its members may be equally enabled to make the best of such powers as they possess.

If made in the first sense, the assertion of human equality is clearly untenable.  It is a piece of mythology against which irresistible evidence has been accumulated by biologists and psychologists.  In the light of the data presented—to mention only two recent examples—in such works as Dr. Burt’s admirable studies of the distribution of educational abilities among school-children, or the Report of the Mental Deficiency Committee, the fact that, quite apart from differences of environment and opportunity, individuals differ widely in their natural endowments, and in their capacity to develop them by education, is not open to question.  There is some reason for holding, for instance, that, while eighty per cent of children at the age of ten fall within a range of about three mental years, the most backward may have a mental age of five, while the most gifted may have one of as much as fifteen.

The acceptance of that conclusion, nevertheless, makes a smaller breach in equalitarian doctrines than is sometimes supposed, for such doctrines have rarely been based on a denial of it.  It is true, of course, that the psychological and political theory of the age between 1750 and 1850—the theory, for example, of thinkers so different as Helvetius and Adam Smith at the beginning of the period, and Mill and Proudhon at the end of it—greatly underestimated the significance of inherited qualities, and greatly overestimated the plasticity of human nature.  It may be doubted, however, whether it was quite that order of ideas which inspired the historical affirmations of human equality, even in the age when such ideas were still in fashion.

It is difficult for even the most sanguine of assemblies to retain for more than one meeting the belief that Providence has bestowed an equal measure of intelligence upon all its members.  When the Americans declared it to be a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, they were thinking less of the admirable racial qualities of the inhabitants of the New World than of their political and economic relations with the Old, and would have remained unconvinced that those relations should continue even in the face of proofs of biological inferiority.  When the French, who a century and a half ago preached the equalitarian idea with the same fervent conviction as is shown to-day by the rulers of Russia in denouncing it, set that idea side by side with liberty and fraternity as the motto of a new world, they did not mean that all men are equally intelligent or equally virtuous, any more than that they are equally tall or equally fat, but that the unity of their national life should no longer be torn to pieces by obsolete property rights and meaningless juristic distinctions.  When Arnold, who was an inspector of schools as well as a poet, and who, whatever his failings, was not prone to demagogy, wrote “choose equality,” he did not suggest, it may be suspected, that all children appeared to him to be equally clever, but that a nation acts unwisely  in stressing heavily distinctions based on birth or money…

The equality which all these thinkers emphasize as desirable is not equality of capacity or attainment, but of circumstances, institutions, and manner of life.  The inequality which they deplore is not inequality of personal gifts, but of the social and economic environment.  They are concerned, not with a biological phenomenon, but with a spiritual relation and the conduct to be based on it.  Their view, in short, is that, because men are men, social institutions—property rights, and the organization of industry, and the system of public health and education—should be planned, as far as is possible, to emphasize and strengthen, not the class differences which divide, but the common humanity which unites, them…

It is true, again, that human beings have, except as regards certain elementary, though still sadly neglected, matters of health and development, different requirements, and that these different requirements can be met satisfactorily only by varying forms of provision.  But equality of provision is not identity of provision.  It is to be achieved, not by treating different needs in the same way, but by devoting equal care to ensuring that they are met in the different ways most appropriate to them, as is done by a doctor who prescribes different regimens for different constitutions, or a teacher who develops different types of intelligence by different curricula.  The more anxiously, indeed, a society endeavours to secure equality of consideration for all its members, the greater will be the differentiation of treatment which, when once their common human needs have been met, it accords to the special needs of different groups and individuals among them.

It is true, finally, that some men are inferior to other in respect of their intellectual endowments, and it is possible—though the truth of the possibility has not yet been satisfactorily established—that the same is true of certain classes.  It does not, however, follow from this fact that such individuals or classes should receive less consideration than others, or should be treated as inferior in respect of such matters as legal status, or health, or economic arrangements, which are within the control of the community…

Everyone recognizes the absurdity of such an argument when it is applied to matters within his personal knowledge and professional competence…

Not everyone, however, is so quick to detect the fallacy when it is expressed in general terms…

How men in given circumstances tend to behave, and how, as a consequence, wealth tends in such circumstances to be distributed, are subjects about which valuable and illuminating, if necessarily tentative, generalizations have been produced by economists.  But their behavior, as economists have often told us, is relative to their circumstances; and the distribution of wealth depends, not wholly, indeed, but largely, on their institutions; and the character of their institutions is determined, not by immutable economic laws, but by the values, preferences, interests and ideals which rule at any moment in a given society.

Those values and preferences are not something fixed and unalterable.  On the contrary, they have changed repeatedly in the past, and are changing to-day; and the distribution of wealth has changed, and is changing, with them…

The individual differences of which so much is made…will always survive, and they are to be welcomed, not regretted.  But their existence is no reason for not seeking to establish the largest possible measure of equality of environment, and circumstance, and opportunity.  On the contrary, it is a reason for redoubling our efforts to establish it, in order to ensure that these diversities of gifts may come to fruition.

It is true, indeed, that even such equality, though the conditions on which it depends are largely within human control, will continue to elude us.  The important thing, however, is not that it should be completely attained, but that it should be sincerely sought.  What matters to the health of society is the objective towards which its face is set, and to suggest that it is immaterial in which direction it moves, because, whatever the direction, the goal must always elude it, is not scientific, but irrational.  It is like using the impossibility of absolute cleanliness as a pretext for rolling in a manure heap, or denying the importance of honesty because no one can be wholly honest.

It may well be the case that capricious inequalities are in some measure inevitable, in the sense that, like crime and disease, they are a malady which the most rigorous precautions cannot wholly overcome.  But, when crime is known as crime, and disease as disease, the ravages of both are circumscribed by the mere fact that they are recognized for what they are, and described by their proper names, not by flattering euphemisms.  And a society which is convinced that inequality is an evil need not be alarmed because the evil is one which cannot wholly be subdued.  In recognizing the poison it will have armed itself with an antidote. It will have deprived inequality of its sting by stripping it of its esteem.

This is part of a series