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October 24, 2010


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That Toby Young quote reminds me of another Young, the sociologist Michael Young who coined the word 'meritocracy' as a satirical term.

In the essay in which he first uses the term, he outlines a future society where members of ruling class really do believe they are entitled to the wealth and power they have accumulated. After all, they have achieved all they have through merit and everyone had a free shot.

As Michael Young remarks:

"some members of the meritocracy...have
become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern"

I think there's more be drawn out of Clegg's 'very lucky' remark as well. This suggests that, at some level, he's aware that society is vastly unfair and that people's respective outcomes are largely the result of factors outside their control: 'good' or 'bad' luck. The damning thing is that while he's happy to acknowledge it he's not willing to do anything about it.

Liam Murray

Surely the difference between the undeserving poor and the undeserving rich arises when looking at what they do or don't 'deserve'?

The former are referenced in the context of state support - money taken from other people to provide for those unable to support themselves through misfortune. There's a recognition that some people's fate is not of their doing and so it's reasonable & compassionate to support them, not so for others more responsible for their condition. The distinction exists because without it there would be no broad public support for a welfare system.

The undeserving rich make no such claim on the support of others. Sure, they're often in receipt of wealth & opportunities beyond that which their talents would naturally secure but that's secondary, many of them squander such things anyway. Likewise many poor people make the most of theirs. The point is it's not a problem for the state to address. The distinction still exists and is often referenced culturally - think about the spate of TV shows effectively laughing at upper-class twits living of Mum & Dad.


"That Toby Young quote reminds me of another Young, the sociologist Michael Young"

His father. Which is always kind of strange.


I think it's interesting to consider how else people in Clegg's position might behave. After all, people with privilege cannot simply renounce it (as Jarvis Cocker pointed out in Common People). Those who do try to renounce their privilege often succeed in simply making themselves miserable without actually improving the situation for anyone else. Given this, what should they do instead?

Attempting to answer this question feels like an exercise in futility to me. As I think the original post hints at, we can't reasonably expect much more from those who come from privileged backgrounds; it's not as if a bit more guilt-tripping would make them better leaders or better people. If we want a better-governed society then we have to achieve it by promoting a wider variety of voices, rather than simply beseeching the existing elite to be a bit more self-aware.



To believe that, "The undeserving rich make no ... claim on the support of others" is surely to believe that poverty and wealth, advantage and disadvantage, are not tied together by unbreakable cords. I don't believe that and I struggle to imagine how anyone could.

Paul Sagar

Thanks for the kind words.

Quick point thought: it's not just Tories who exhibit the asymmetry in attitudes...it's ordinary voters too. And that's a real problem for egalitarian leftists.


"After all, admission to Britain’s top public schools, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, is at least partly based on merit"

Unless you're from a VERY famous family, or Daddy is a major benefactor of the school or college, it's true. Most public schools have an entrance exam, and Oxbridge entrance requirements are high.

BTW, it's interesting that, as Paul points out, 'ordinary voters' can see the difference between Undeserving Person A being given money by their parents and Undeserving Person B being given money thats been taken in tax from Deserving Persons C to Z - while Paul and Chris apparently can't.


@ Liam, Laban - so the undeserving rich make no claim on others? Did the banking crisis never happen?
The state gave the financial sector over £150 billion of support in 2007-09:


You're changing the subject, Chris. AFAIK Paul isn't writing about the banking crisis, he's writing about Cameron's (as perceived by him) inconsistency between undeserving rich (by birth) and undeserving poor.

"Many ordinary people spontaneously agree with one quite specific (luck) egalitarian thought: that if you don’t work hard, you should have less (nothing?) than others who do. But a logically corresponding thought, travelling in the opposite direction, is not affirmed with anything like as much commitment, by anything like as many people: that inequalities that are undeserved and result from brute luck – rather than the responsible choices of individuals – should be corrected for.

This asymmetry ..."

Nothing to do with banking bailouts.

FWIW, I'd imagine that most working people, as I am, are apoplectic that it's big bucks time again this Christmas at the banks - and would give political support to any amount of banker-bashing. I'd have liked to have seen the failures nationalised and broken up, with non-depositors taking hefty haircuts.

But then I tend to agree with Simon Johnson's thesis that "The finance industry has effectively captured our government".



PS - I think Boris Johnson's jest at the 2008(?) Spectator politics awards was a true one - he raised a toast to Britain's MPs and the expenses scandal for their deflection of public rage away from the City, saying to them 'You took one for the bankers!'.


"The undeserving rich make no such claim on the support of others."

I was trying to think of a way in which this might be true, but haven't come up with anything. The money which the undeserving rich spend in order to maintain a certain lifestyle has a store of value; that value has been created and is sustained by the efforts of other people (note: in the case we're considering this is so by stipulation) and by a general respect for property rights. Perhaps we don't hear much from the undeserving poor? I'm not so sure. Legislation gets passed that mainly benefits the already wealthy: someone must be lobbying for it.


Hear much from the undeserving rich, that is.

john problem

I was educated at Eton, Wellington, Cambridge and the Sorbonne. With that armament you would have thought I'd have been a success, a millionaire with a seat on the front bench and a second home. Alas, no. Should I have gone into politics instead of charity?

Liam Murray


I understand the wider contextual point you're trying to make about inherited wealth - to some extent I agree with it. But it does nothing to undermine or contradict the point I made.

The undeserving poor make a direct, tangible & material claim on the assets of others, the undeserving rich make no such claim - that difference explains, and to my mind justifies the differing reaction to both groups.


Likewise on the bank bailouts. It's a tangential point at best since it doesn't demonstrate the same scale, regularity or context of the claims made by those on welfare. It was also enacted by an essentially social democratic government on the premise that without it the fate of many ordinary 'non-wealthy' people would've been worse.

Bob S

[T]he undeserving rich make no such claim...

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait.

Bob S

Should have acknowledged that was Balzac.


But Admission to Westminster is based on merit. Yes of course your parents have to have the fees but apart from that it is purely on ability


"The undeserving poor make a direct, tangible & material claim on the assets of others, the undeserving rich make no such claim"

Well anyone who spends more than they earn in a period is living off someone else's efforts - either in the form of dividends, interest and transfers as well as govt spending.

This might (and often is) entirely justfiable, but I can imagine times it is not - for example if they are to do with monopoly rents. Then it is simply 'private taxation' very much like normal taxation, isn't it? I imagine a Land Value Tax would sort it out (seems to sort everything else out).


Re the undeserving rich, google "euthanasia of the rentier"


Pierre Manent says that one good way to define our time is separation.
There is a separation between electors and elected, the State has the separation of powers,...
Another field where more recently has this separation appeared is in wages. Jobless people are paid for, well, for nothing. Some people even argue for an universal wage, as a right of all human beings, aslso in exchange of nothing.
So, if we accept that separation, if we agree that there is no relation between what one gets and what one does, how can we speak of undeservingly rich?
You may not like it, but you'll have to accept that also for the filthy rich the link reward/contribution has been broken.

Bertie Worthington (Minor)

"But Admission to Westminster is based on merit. Yes of course your parents have to have the fees but apart from that it is purely on ability."

Yes, you're up against all of those other children whose parents can afford £30,000 per year for their education. Not exactly a massive pot. I didn't take the entrance exam for Westminster, not because I would have failed it; au contraire. But because it would have been impossible for me to attend even if I were the cleverest young blighter in all of the realm.

Admission to Westminster is based primarily on wealth and then on merit.


Paul Sagar hits on a crucial point when he says "it's not just Tories who exhibit the asymmetry in attitudes...it's ordinary voters too."

There is a genuine tension in our moral thought between the belief in: (a) genuine equality of opportunity - that no-one deserves a leg-up (or should I say "Clegg-up"?) just in virtue of the fact we are born into a certain family, or country etc.; and (b) the right to do what we want with our resources, and particularly, the right (or perhaps duty) to give our family and friends the best start in life even if this perpetuates unfairness.

Dangerous Variable

I think it works the other way. The people that think they are deserving have the siege mentality that breeds self-deception about the world being an unfair place with no motivation to strive, work hard and live on benefits! That's your self-deception thinking that you are entitled to material things not yours, sitting by the window and watching the world goes by while Jeremy Kyle stroke your self-deception with no end in sight!


Liam: "The undeserving poor make a direct, tangible & material claim on the assets of others, the undeserving rich make no such claim."

My landlord claims about one third of my net income to allow me to live on the patch of ground and pile of old bricks that I happend to know he owns through inheritance. It's actually a much greater part of my income than the component of tax that I pay that supports poor people on welfare. Thus, for me, the undeserving rich take a bigger slice of the pie that I am baking than the undeserving poor.

Tim J

"After all, admission to Britain’s top public schools, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, is at least partly based on merit."

Rather than being laughable, this is very simply a statement of facts. Now, if Toby Young had suggested that entrance to top public schools was solely on merit, that would be laughable. But he didn't.

The scholarship papers I took for Winchester College were far harder than any public exam I sat before Oxford finals. They were certainly much harder than A-levels.

If you want to argue that the 14 boys a year (not me) that passed these exams got into Winchester entirely because their parents were wealthy, and that merit had no place at all, I think you're going rather further than you should.


But isn't he saying that every admission to Winchester is partly on merit, whereas you are arguing that part of the admissions to Winchester are on merit?


@Tim J - I'm not denying that there's some merit in getting into Oxford or even in getting a decent degree therefrom. It's just that those who do so don't have any more merit than me.
Which is a pretty low bar.

Peter Risdon

This is very funny. It's as true of Paul, though reversed, as it is of Tories. Talk about unselfconscious.

No one

I'm no fan of Toby Young, but I think this is quoting him slightly out of context--or at least, his comment could be misread. He has written of his father, and indeed of meritocracy--which TY acknowledges originally had a perjorative meaning (at least, that's what Michael Young intended when he coined 'meritocracy'). Meritocracy was far more insidious than aristocracy: if you assumed you got to your position by merit, you would have nothing but contempt for those who didn't do well (and would ignore the obvious structural advantages to being rich)--those who failed failed because they weren't trying hard enough etc. aristocrats on the other hand, were aware that their position did not come to them by 'merit' and so act with a sense of noblesse oblige towards the poor.

If this is understood (whether or not you agree with the theory or not), and if you read Young's piece, I think it's actually a quite cutting to those in the coalition. TY is quite negative towards the leaders of the coalition.

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