The thinker Blair didn't understand

Observations on John Rawls

When I was a child, I used to hide behind the settee when the Daleks appeared on Doctor Who. Every so often as an adult, I retreat once again to that dark, dusty, safe zone. One such moment was the infamous exchange between Jeremy Paxman and Tony Blair during Election 2001, in which Blair asserted that he was content to see inequality rising in British society as long as the least well-off were doing better in absolute terms. What made me turn away was not just the difficulty Blair had in articulating his position, but also his apparent inability to recognise the significance of what he was saying for a party of the left.

The death of John Rawls, the 20th century's greatest progressive thinker, brought this moment sharply back to mind: for what he called "the original position", an idea that some would argue is his most significant contribution to modern thought, would seem to provide powerful backing for Blair.

Rawls asked us to imagine how we would want society arranged if we had no prior knowledge of the characteristics and qualities we would possess or the social position we would be born into in that society. He suggested that we would choose a society in which all had as much freedom as could be reconciled with the freedom of others and in which there was "fair equality of opportunity".

But Rawls also argued that the participants of the original position would agree to unequal distribution of wealth where this could be shown to benefit the worst-off. It is this, "the difference principle", which appears to offer legitimacy to the Blair position. Put simply, the principle allows inequality to exist and even to grow if, as a result, benefits accrue to the least well-off.

The new Labour approach, which fails to grasp the distinction in Rawls's thinking between merit and talent, seeks to give talented individuals maximum scope to benefit from their potential. Rather than seeking to mitigate the effects of differing levels of inherent ability, new Labour philosophy and its policies in relation to schools and universities ignores the less-talented being left far behind.

But does the difference principle allow any inequalities that benefit the worst-off - such as the wealth generated by the talented ultimately benefiting the poor who serve them in restaurants and drive them home? Rawls was asked the question and answered "no".

Even if trickle-down worked - and the evidence is far from convincing - Rawls could not reconcile the levels of inequality found in societies such as the US and UK with his demand that all citizens have equal access to political power and participation and be accorded equal respect. Given his distaste for the way material inequality undermines political equality, it is not surprising that Rawls became an impassioned supporter of the reform of political party funding in the US.

Rawls was able to draw together in a single account a powerful analysis of the values of equality, liberty and democracy, and to do so in a way that underlined his belief in the importance of public assent for the social order.

Much, much more of Rawls's work deserves debate on the modern left. He became, for example, increasingly doubtful that today's welfare capitalism could deliver democratic equality. Instead, he echoed democratic thought dating from Aristotle through Paine in calling for a property-owning democracy in which each individual has the material resources to allow full citizenship. Although Rawls would have had little sympathy for the new Labour position on inequality, he would have welcomed the idea of the children's trust fund (baby bonds), which was reaffirmed in Gordon Brown's pre-Budget statement.

Matthew Taylor is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research