The equality industry conveniently overlooks progress

PROGRESS is found in human ingenuity, and concomitant success and failure. Strangely, reference to progress rarely appears in public debate, or in the literature.

One reason is that egalitarian ideology has displaced progress. It seems that for some, there can be no progress until we are equal.

Last week, a Labor backbencher quoted Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. They arrived at their false conclusion by various devices, principally by excluding ­nations that did not fit their argument.

In order to fit the data they excluded fully 27 of the 50 top ­nations. They were also very selective in their choice of measures of dysfunction.

They included some that fitted the propaganda (imprisonment and homicide), but excluded others that did not (crime and suicide). Worst of all, they excluded other powerful ­factors that explain poverty, such as race.

Egalitarians appear to encourage talent (success) and appear concerned for the poor (failure). In fact, they care for neither. Egalitarianism provides a veneer for the crude politics of envy. It is well suited to democratic politics and to politicians who buy votes of the many with taxes from the few.

By contrast, the compassionate non-egalitarian knows when concern bleeds into self-serving ideology, the kind that teachers’ unions and some poverty advocates have been peddling for years.

All teachers know, but teachers’ unions deny, that student ­success has two sources: cir­cum­stance and effort. It can be argued that differences in student outcomes that are caused by circumstances are unacceptable and should be compensated. Differences due to effort, however, are acceptable and never justify compensation.

Every state and federal government has accepted and funded recommendations of “egalitarian” education reports from Karmel in the 1970s through to Gonski in the 2010s. And yet difference persists.

The persistent relationship between social class and student outcomes is deemed to be a result of circumstances. Because middle-class (or otherwise aspirational) parents may read to children, or simply be more articulate, they are, in effect, penalised by being taxed to compensate for those who do not, or are not.

Redistribution, sufficient to get the bright poor child a start, is warranted. Any more is punishing the parents. The point of punishment in education funding was reached a long time ago. The same overkill can be seen on the poverty debate.

Much of the politics of the Left is consumed with “disadvantage”.

Strange as it may seem, there is no ready measure of disadvantage. On the contrary, there are many measures, as a recent Productivity Commission paper has explained.

Disadvantage was traditionally understood as poverty, and poverty as inadequate income. But inadequate income, while easy to measure, does not necessarily establish disadvantage.

The test for disadvantage has been interpreted as “insufficient outcomes”, but as Amartya Sen has argued, “it is impoverished lives, and not just depleted wallets that matter”.

Such profundity makes the Left swoon. It means that poverty has not only become relative, and therefore cannot be eliminated, it has also become multifaceted. The consequence is that Australia may have anywhere between a 1 per cent and a 25 per cent “poverty” problem depending on the measure.

Estimates based on broad proxies of poverty — deprivation, disadvantage and exclusion — indicate that 13 per cent of Australians are income poor, that is, they are below 50 per cent of median income, and 25 per cent aged 15 years plus experienced some degree of “social exclusion”.

A much smaller proportion of Australians experience deeper or multiple forms of disadvantage. Three per cent of Australians aged 15 years or more experienced deep social exclusion for five or more years, and less than 1 per cent for seven years or more.

Sustained economic growth between 2001 and 2010 appears to have had little impact on the estimated proportion of Australians who were experiencing relative income poverty. It seems that as the actual level of poverty declines, new ways of expanding the numbers arise. The exception is the concentration on those who suffer “very deep exclusion”.

Consideration of progress has sunk under the weight of relative deprivation and the inability of massive taxpayer transfers to recreate middle-class (and migrant) attachment to education to some of the working class.

It leaves less time for the spirit of brilliance and the travails of real poverty. My friend and colleague Ray Evans, much missed and a great Australian, understood this. This column is dedicated to his memory.