Policymakers and academics convene to debate role of equality and responsibility

8 May 2009

A high-profile convention of policymakers and academics met in Oxford on 30 April-1 May to debate the role of equality and responsibility, as part of the FLJS programme on The Social Contract Revisited. The issues discussed come as figures released today indicate that Britain under Gordon Brown is a more unequal country than at any time since modern records began in the early 1960s.

The event was opened with a keynote address at St Hugh's College by the renowned economic philosopher Professor John Roemer of Yale University, who argued that a nation's development should not be measured in terms of economic growth, but in terms of distributive justice, as defined by contemporary egalitarian theory.

The following two-day workshop gave rise to a lively debate as to the relative roles of the citizen and the state in achieving equality. Peter Vincent-Jones, an expert on contractual governance, opened the workshop with his critique of the Jobseeker's Agreement, arguing that whilst this was meant to put the relation between citizen and state on an equal footing, in fact it was subject to a populist moralist discourse, and the absence of legitimating consent on the part of the claimant creates significant inequality.

Julian LeGrand, former Senior Policy Adviser to Tony Blair and one of the principal architects of the UK Government’s current public service reforms, then outlined his vision of 'new paternalism', arguing that the state should intervene in individuals' autonomy to protect them from the consequences of their own decisions.

LeGrand unveiled a new 'marriage default' proposal, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, whereby couples with children who cohabit would automatically be conferred married status, in order to protect the child against separation and make the family unit more secure.

The following day, the former Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir drew on her experience in government to demonstrate the complexities of achievng equality in education provision, since even a fair education system in which all are treated equally merely perpetuates existing inequalities inherited from family circumstance.

In order to overcome inequality, she argued, five-times the amount of educational resources must be provided to children from lower-class families, but the perverse consequences of this is that middle-class familes, fearing the effects of such positive discrimination on their children, remove their children to private education, thereby creating a two-tier system.

A transcript and podcast of Professor Roemer's lecture are availble from the link on the right.

A full programme and participant details can be downloaded from the Downloads box on the right.