How Conservatives Can Talk About Equality

In the aftermath of the riots across England last week, right-leaning English papers like the Daily Mail are now frankly acknowledging the politics of envy in the background of the social unrest. The rioters’ own statements, or what little of them made their way into the papers of record, suggest the juvenile resentment behind their actions–such as the callow expression of one young lady that she was showing “the rich” that “we can do what we want.”

It’s far too generous to the rioters to ascribe political motives to them, of course. Despite the earnest introspection by the chattering class, the riots were distinctively apolitical, more akin to the rioting in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup finals than a political protest. Much analysis of the “politics of envy” has focused on parallels between the looters/rioters and the banking sector in the wake of the 2008 financial panic. As the Daily Mail reports, banks bailed out with taxpayer dollars have refused to renegotiate mortgage payments to families that lost homes to fire in the riots–to justified outrage. After all, it seems like the refusal of the banks in the aforementioned case shows the same callousness and ungratefulness as the rioters’ burning of the house in the first place. In both cases, the bad actors bite the hand that feeds them.

Nevertheless, its vital to preserve certain distinctions, as Theodore Darymple has pointed out:

First, rioters violated others’ rights. Banks may have captured the regulatory apparatus or received special treatment, but taxpayers’ rights weren’t violated as a result of the bailout–it’s in the nature of a representative democracy that government will use our taxes for some with which we disagree. Second, the degree of responsibility differs in each case. The rioters bear individual and collective responsibility for the harms they inflicted. The lenders, however, were only half the story–borrowers incurring debts they couldn’t afford form the other. What’s more, the perverse incentives work differently in each case. The rioters retain more responsibility because of the criminal nature of their wrong, while the bankers I think retain less responsibility because of the economic or civil nature of the wrong. Put another way, the rioters inflicted a harm against the whole of society in a sense that the bankers’ individual sales did not.
These difficulties arise if you want to exculpate the brawlers by comparing them to the bankers. But if you come to the analogy to concerned by the breakdown individual responsibility at all levels of society, then the analogy doesn’t exculpate anyone. Rather, the analogy indicates an inequality of class values that poses a serious challenge to economic (and therefore political) freedom. The rioters lack respect for society’s institutions for a variety of reasons, some venal and unworthy of further discussion, but also for others like the preferential treatment and socialization of financial losses
Deciding to socializing losses invariably leads to the demand to socialize profits. Fairness cannot have it any other way, whether in the case of subsidizing banks’ bad risks and precluding a true profit-and-loss system in finance or failing to discipline society’s bad actors in the court of law. But there, of course, is another option: privatize the losses, either through market discipline or individual responsibility. In this respect, conservatives should be the standard bearers of equality–equality of expectations and consequences.