The Samovar


Should left wingers not send their kids to private schools?

The UK Labour party is currently having a leadership contest. The most left-wing candidate, Diane Abbott, has been criticised for sending her children to a fee-paying school. In the eyes of many socialists, this should be an instant disqualification for any left-wing political career. But is this a reasonable point of view?

I can see two reasons why you might want to rule out any candidate that sent their children to private school.

  1. It’s hypocritical to be against private schools but send your kids to one. This hypocrisy suggests that you don’t really believe what you say, and therefore if you got into power you wouldn’t necessarily act socialist.
  2. Sending your children to private school gives them an unfair advantage, and by doing so you are promoting inequality – not good for a left-winger.

The first criticism says that sending your kids to private school signals that you don’t really believe in socialism. There are two responses to this: first of all, it’s not clear that this is a correct inference. There is a difference between what someone believes they should do, and what they believe government policy should be. It is entirely logically coherent to believe both that we should live in a society with no private schools, and that given that we do live in a society with private schools, it is better to send ones kids to them than not. The two statements are simply not comparable, they live in different moral worlds: on the one hand choices about the nature of society itself, and on the other hand choices about what to do when the nature of society is fixed. So there is no reason to think that someone who sends their kids to private school would oppose the ending of the system of private schools, or indeed any other socialist policy.

The second response is that we also have to consider the signal sent by doing the opposite. If someone believes that sending their kids to private school would give them an advantage, and they’re financially able to do so, what does it mean if they choose not to do this? One possibility is that it means they value their political career more than the future of their children. If this were the case, then it’s not only a disturbing feature of their personality, but it suggests the sort of thing they would do if they got into power: anything that was necessary to further their career. That wouldn’t bode well for socialism.

However there are other reasons why they might not send their children to private school even if they thought it would be advantageous to them. They might, for example, think along the lines of statement (2) above – that someone else is being hurt by their sending their children to private school, and that this is not an acceptable price to pay. Alternatively, they might believe in the importance of symbolic commitments: that by performing certain actions you assert your commitment to ideals. An example of this is voting: any individual is wasting their time by voting, as their single vote almost certainly won’t change anything, but by doing so they assert their commitment to the ideal of democracy. The value of this sort of belief is debatable, but one wouldn’t want to assign any bad motives to someone who had such a belief. One final reason for not sending your children to private school even if you had the means to do so would be that you believe that state schools give a better education.

Given that there are many good reasons for not sending your children to private school even if you can – we certainly don’t want to deduce that people who choose not to have put their career first, but it is a possibility and it’s therefore not clear that someone who chooses not to send their kids to private school is likely to be better than someone who does.

The second criticism is that sending children to private school is in itself a sort of act of violence – by giving your children an advantage you must, almost by definition, put someone else at a disadvantage. This is a reasonable point of view, and to a certain extent must be true. There is another way of looking at it that makes it less clear though. It may be the case that sending someone to private school only makes them more likely to succeed – it doesn’t actually change the distribution of success or failure in society. In other words, the individual act of sending someone to private school may only improve their chances of success without changing the overall levels of inequality at all. Suppose you could choose between two possibilities: either your child is successful and consequently someone else’s child is unsuccessful; or someone else’s child is successful and consequently yours is unsuccessful. All other things being equal, we would have to be dubious about someone who chose that someone else’s child should be successful instead of theirs.

Let’s take this one step further: if we believe that we shouldn’t give our children an unfair advantage by sending them to private school – doesn’t this also mean that we shouldn’t give them an unfair advantage by doing other things that we know improve a child’s chances in life? Like talking to them and playing with them? Like taking an interest in them and helping them to understand the world? In other words, by being good parents? And what on earth would we make of people who thought like that? One response might be to say that there’s a difference: that sending children to private school and being a good parenting, that the former increases inequality whereas the latter does not. But what evidence is there for that? We know that ‘cultural capital’ promotes inequality in much the same way as financial capital does, and isn’t it precisely this cultural capital that is increased by good parenting? Rather than argue that parents ought not to work to give their children any advantages, which is I think absurd, I would argue that parents should work both to make their children’s lives as successful and happy as possible, whilst at the same time working for an equal society, a society in which everyone can have a fulfilling life, where fulfillment is not necessarily gained by doing better than others.

In conclusion: I am not arguing that parents ought to send their children to private school if they can afford to. There are, as I outlined above, many good reasons for not doing so. Instead, I’m simply arguing that the arguments of many critics against people who choose to are poorly grounded, and that following through on the type of reasoning they have followed to reach their conclusion would lead to some weird conclusions. Beyond this, I think that there is a danger that by insisting our politicians uphold certain standards that we haven’t through very carefully, we actually provide perverse incentives that work against our interests. By insisting that socialist politicians cannot send their children to private school, do we not thereby increase the chances of getting politicians who are more interested in their own careers than in their children? And if we’ve learned anything from Tony Blair, isn’t it that government by those who are more interested in their careers and the exercise of power itself than in the ideals they claim to believe in is an enormous wasted opportunity for the left?

I’ll finish with a suggestion: left-wing parents who want to send their children to private schools could make donations equal to the school fees they pay to a charitable trust devoted to giving grants to send children to private schools from families that could not afford them. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, there are some questions to be asked about it: perhaps there are better uses of that money? What about parents who could afford to send their children to private school, but could not afford to double that cost?

Disclosure: I was sent to private school by my parents. Make of this what you will.

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Left Liberalism, and compulsory education

Sunny Hundal has an excellent new project, the Liberal Conspiracy. The idea, in brief, is to provide a hub of activity for liberal left bloggers. Recently, the right has been much better at organising this sort of thing than the left, and hopefully this project will change that. They have a whole range of some of the best bloggers on the left. Many of them were already on my blogroll, but there are some names that are new to me, so it should be interesting to see what gets posted there.

To me, the benefit of this sort of project is that it potentially provides a non-combative space in which to develop liberal left ideas. A community of people all thinking along roughly the same lines can analyse and criticise each others ideas in a constructive manner, rather than channelling all their effort into defending these ideas against their opponents on the right. This allows the debate to move beyond defending our basic principles, and instead looking at the deeper consequences and applications of these principles.

I hope that this is exactly how the site will develop, but there is one issue of basic principle that needs to be cleared up right from the start, which is the precise meaning of liberal in the name. This contentious point has become one of the site’s central first debates, with Lib Dem bloggers (and right wingers) claiming that the site is just Left and not Liberal. The best statement I have read on this issue so far is Chris Dillow’s manifesto explaining why he is joining the Conspiracy:

The left, following Rawls, gives greater weight to its impact upon the worst-off than does the right. And this is one reason why leftism and liberalism go together. One reason why I oppose infringements of civil liberties – drug laws, control orders or stop & search powers – is that these bear most heavily upon the poor and powerless.

Inequalities of wealth and power – those between bosses and workers – often rest upon an anti-Hayekian faith that hierarchical management is feasible. It’s not. I’m a liberal because I think top-down management fails in government. I’m a left liberal because I think it fails in companies too.

It’s not just states that limit freedom. Bosses do too. It’s not good enough to argue, as the right does, that market forces will solve this problem; they don’t always grind fine enough.

….

For freedom to really matter – and to win popular support – it must be more than the absence of state coercion. It must imply the opportunity to positively control one’s life, to make something of it.

This last paragraph to me seems crucial to understanding what it is to be a liberal leftist rather than a liberal. Those of us on the liberal left might co-operate with the liberal right on opposing New Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, but it is only an alliance of necessity, because the right’s notion of freedom is too restricted.

That’s not to say that all those on the liberal left agree in particular circumstances about what is or isn’t liberal. The first debate to kick off on the site has explored this issue. Mike Ion wrote a guest post arguing that new plans to raise the school leaving age to 18 are a good idea. Amongst others, Chris Dillow responded (here and here) that it wasn’t a good idea. One of his reasons, shared by some of the commenters on the original post, is that it is illiberal. But, as I argued on all three posts, it ain’t necessarily so.

Straightforwardly, it seems illiberal because it is a restriction on a previously existing freedom: kids could choose to continue at school or not. But, if staying at school has an associated financial penalty, then having it be non-compulsory means there is a (financial) pressure to leave school and earn money, even though the long term effect of this might be to limit their freedom quite substantially. This piece of research seems to indicate that financial concerns do indeed play a considerable role in deciding whether or not kids continue at school after 16: after the government introduced the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA, a £10-30 per week incentive to stay at school), the number staying on after 16 increased by 4.6%, and the number still in education a year later was 6.4% higher than before. And that’s just what you get for the tiny sum of £30/week (tiny compared to what you could earn working). So, it might be the case that by making education compulsory to the age of 18, you are actually increasing liberty by taking away a financial pressure that strongly influences the choice. It’s not obvious that it is more free this way – because it might be that compared to the number who feel compelled to leave school by financial considerations, more would want to leave school even if they were paid as much to stay at school as they could earn outside school – but it’s not a foregone conclusion that it is illiberal. Opinion can and does rightly vary within the community of left liberals on this issue.

This was a good debate to kick off the Liberal Conspiracy site, because it has helped to clarify the relevant meaning of liberalism, and exemplified how a constructive critical discussion can take place amongst people who all consider themselves liberal leftists.

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