Only fair

Why Social Justice Matters

Brian Barry <em>Polity Press, 323pp, £17.99 (pbk)</em>

ISBN 074562993

During a long career, Brian Barry has been a distinguished contributor to the arguments about equality and social justice that have raged among political theorists ever since the publi-cation of John Rawls's Theory of Justice in 1971. Barry's new book is a furious polemic, designed with a general readership in mind. Using a plethora of examples, he presents a strongly egalitarian vision of social justice, together with an often savage denunciation of those politicians who have abandoned it as an aim.

Barry is centrally concerned with two ideas, both of which have pride of place in new Labour's lexicon: equality of opportunity and personal responsibility. His arresting thesis is that those who pay lip-service to such concepts generally have little idea what they actually entail. If we are serious about equality of opportunity, he contends, we need to be serious about eradicating all the influences that social class, race and family background have on life chances. Genuine equality of opportunity exists only when outcomes depend exclusively on people's choices and decisions, not on factors beyond their control. Similarly, individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions if their choices have been determined by their social background.

In the Labour Party, debates about social justice have often centred on the distinction between "equality of opportunity" and "equality of outcome". Barry argues that the distinction is specious. Taking equality of opportunity seriously actually involves keeping outcomes within a narrow range. Given that life chances tend to be transmitted between the generations, it is necessary to create a high level of material equality in order to have even a hope of achieving equality of opportunity.

In policy terms, this would entail a huge expansion of schemes such as Sure Start, with substantial government intervention in childcare; increased (and carefully targeted) spending on education, with higher salaries for those teaching in less privileged areas; and an end to tax breaks for private schools. In healthcare, it would entail vigorous public health initiatives, as well as an effort to ensure that the working poor have access to high-quality and nutritious food. At the more radical edge of his policy prescriptions, Barry advocates significant capital grants to young adults, and a universal basic income.

He is contemptuous of those who advocate "choice" in the public services. Choice is good for the articulate and pushy middle classes, but comes at the expense of the inarticulate and the diffident. Although Barry is hostile to most politicians, it is interesting that some of his more moderate proposals mesh with Gordon Brown's "progressive universalist" vision of social democracy.

Barry's pugnacious defence of a robust social democracy deserves to find a wide readership. Even those put off by his radicalism will find his arguments stimulating and provocative. Moreover, for disillusioned social democrats, Why Social Justice Matters stands as a refreshingly staunch and intelligent manifesto.

Martin O'Neill is research fellow in philosophy and politics at St John's College, Cambridge

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.

This article first appeared in the 11 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The ghost at Gleneagles