The left must ask the right questions as well as provide the right answers

This government has repeatedly shown itself incapable of thinking beyond the level of the individual. In doing so it has sidelined questions about the kind of society that it's policies are creating.

Simon Ravenscroft is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, working on the social theory of Ivan Illich

This government has repeatedly shown itself incapable of thinking beyond the level of the individual. In doing so it has sidelined questions about the kind of society that its policies are creating.

This is its chief ideological victory. To the extent the left gets dragged into debating questions posed on the level of the individual, it has already lost the main argument. Instead it should be seeking to ask its own questions.

I want to look at one example in depth to illustrate my more general point. Since I live and work in a university, I’ll pick the debate over the tripling of higher education tuition fees. This was a debate the left lost, and so it’s worth looking to it for some lessons.

At the time the government and media mantra in justification of this policy was: “People with degrees get higher-paying jobs, should they not be expected to pay for this privilege?”

Ideologically speaking this is a trick question, because whether you answer yes or no you’ve already been dragged into thinking about higher education in an individualist way – that is, as education as a private, individual good. Many protestors against the government agenda fell into this trap by turning to the language of ‘rights’: “Education should be free because it is my human right”.

This doesn’t go anything like far enough. The language of rights still requires us to think about education in private, individualised terms (“my right to my education, which benefits me”).

But higher education is not just a private good, it is also a public good. And this is the point that is continually glossed over in debates. For example, having a highly-educated populace is crucial for a healthy and thriving democracy; it enhances our common life, both culturally and otherwise; there are also economic benefits that are felt beyond the level of the individual by society as a whole.

Given this, is it not right that there is a public contribution to higher education, given that we all feel the benefit? Reducing the question to the level of the individual (and forcing students to think about it this way by loading them with debt), only inhibits a whole generation’s ability to think of themselves as part of something bigger than themselves – a society – to which they should be contributing.

A better question would be: “what kind of society do we want to have?” Do we really want to live in a society where only those who are already wealthy, or only those who are willing to take on huge debt, or only those who don’t understand the implications of debt are able to gain a university education?

If we take the point that higher education is a public good, we then have to talk about how we distribute this public good. Two common views here are that, on one hand, we should have a meritocratic distribution (people are given university places on the basis of ‘intellectual merit’), and on the other, an egalitarian distribution (as many places as we have should be distributed equally among all those who want them).

One can debate which of these is better, but it is worth noting that (as Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss has said) neither of these forms of distribution are the same as distribution based on who has the ability to pay, or who is willing to take on huge debt. The latter form of distribution is horrifically regressive by contrast, creating significant barriers for the poorest in our society and giving the better off an even greater head-start than they already have.

Of course, throw up these kinds of objections and the old chestnut gets thrown back, “we don’t have any money to pay for it anymore”. But we know that governments always have money to pay for what they want, and never have it for what they don’t want.

Those on the right regularly manipulate the direction in which public debate goes by asking particular kinds of questions that have individualist assumptions. Take discussions around healthcare and patient contributions. The question is: “if you’ve had the treatment, sure you should pay for it?”

Those who really want to resist this proposal must refuse to answer this question. They must respond by asking instead, “do we want to live in a kind of society where access to healthcare for the sick and injured is based on their ability to pay?”.

If the left is to protect other public goods it fought for so many years to establish, like the NHS, then it needs to look more carefully at the questions it’s faced with, and consider asking different ones. This is crucial if it is going to successfully defend a vision of society that is more than just a collection of self-interested individuals who happen to live in the same geographical area.

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20 Responses to “The left must ask the right questions as well as provide the right answers”

  1. Anna

    Really needed! So many important debates dictated for too long by wrong assumptions.

  2. OldLb

    You can’t even get the analysis right.

    There’s no issue with students funding their own education. None. However if that risk works out, the students should reap the rewards.

    However the left want them both to fund, and to pay extra taxes if it works.

    Heads the state wins, tails the student loses.

    That’s immoral, but what the heck, morals never bothered the left.

    do we want to live in a kind of society where access to healthcare for the sick and injured is based on their ability to pay?”.


    In some cases yes. If we have migrants coming to the UK, they need to be able to contribute in taxes more than they consume in resources. That means they have to pay enough tax to cover all services, including health care. Since health care is 2K a year per person, someone working in Starbucks doesn’t cover that cost, let alone the other expenses of the state.

    So I want to live in a state where people are insured, but I don’t want to pay for optional migrants who can’t afford it.

    Now what about public debt? The left’s run that up. All 8 trillion (pensions included). Are you going to pay that or are you going to steal it from someone else?

    we know that governments always have money to pay for what they want,

    Now you are deluded. You need to wake up, smell the Starbuck’s capuchino, and ask, just how big are the true state debts?

  3. S Ravenscroft

    Thanks for this well-reasoned response. Not to be pedantic but it’s spelt ‘cappuccino’. All the best.

  4. OldLb

    I stand corrected on the coffee front.

    So back the basics. You’ve claimed the state can always pay. That’s not the case.

    The state owes 8,000 bn, when you include pensions. ONS figures available if you want. PFI, borrowing, pensions, nuclear decommissioning, and expected losses on guarantees. Total debt 8,000 bn. All standard accounting practice.

    Now those debts are largely inflation linked. So if your plan is print print and print some more, it doesn’t work. As fast as you print the debts get bigger.

    ie. Medical care, pensions, in fact pretty much all government spending is linked to inflation. You can only get out of that debt by defaulting, in full or in part.

    That means the states debt are purchasing power. X cups of coffee. What those pounds buy is what matters, not the price.

    They are bust. Do the maths.

    Now work through the consequences.

    30% of the people in this country have only enough savings to cover one months spending. They are reliant on the state, and the state’s bankrupt. So they are going to be shafted.

    Its worse when you look at what they could have got from investing in the ‘risky’ FTSE. For a median wage earner they would have been 400,000 pounds better off.

    Nothing like ripping off the poor.

  5. S Ravenscroft

    Look, while I appreciate your concern for the poor (I really do… if only there were more who did), what you’re talking about is an entirely different issue from the real substance of my post, which concerns the terms on which political discourse operates, and the assumptions which lay underneath it. I don’t agree with the things you’re saying for many reasons, but that’s not relevant here since it’s got little to do with the actual article. My initial response to you was ironic. Unironically I suggest that before you dismiss people as ‘deluded’ you take the time to appreciate what they’re actually saying, and perhaps don’t assume (a) that they are a complete idiot, and (b) that you in comparison are the fount of all wisdom. All the best, but I won’t be responding to this thread again.

  6. JR

    A very valuable perspective. The sclerotic debate within ‘the left’ has been unable to cope with the way that political discourse has changed.

    Michael Sandel’s work on markets, and a few wider texts, are valuable contributions. But the political sphere is largely unmoved, and the ‘left’ (read Labour here) has been unable, or unwilling, to articulate a contrasting opinion.

    Though wider than the core message of your article, I feel that the Union dispute / debate has a key role to play. Unions are a valuable, democratic part of our society. But they can also be the most rigid of institutions, and must reform themselves – just as Labour and the ‘left’ must reform. Without these changes, a realistic platform for ‘social’ justice rather than ‘individual’ justice will be hard to create.

  7. S Ravenscroft

    Thanks for this. I was glad to see Miliband using Sandel at last year’s conference, particularly in relation to questions around the NHS (he was acknowledging that the NHS deals with different kinds of ‘goods’ than merely economic goods, and that marketising the NHS would be disastrous for this reason — I found this quite refreshing and a break from the creeping economism of New Labour). But in general I agree with you that there needs to be a far greater shift than there has been. Your Union comments are thought-provoking.

  8. OldLb

    It goes directly to your claim in your article that the money is there. It isn’t because the debts are being ignored.

    If you ignore the debts, you can come to any conclusion you want. Either from the right saying 10% taxation, or the left saying more welfare all round. It’s deluded.

    The money has been spent. The welfare state is bankrupt and the poor are the ones that will be destitute as a result.

    Take this


    do we want to live in a kind of society where access to healthcare for the sick and injured is based on their ability to pay?


    Again, its wrong.

    The problem is that healthcare costs, irrespective of the user directly paying, paying via insurance, or paying via tax.

    So what happens in the UK when the state can’t pay? It’s that debt again. Growing exponentially.

    You end up with a society you don’t want, because of your actions of spending and ignoring the debts.

    It’s back to that assumption your making. There is no debt is the whopper.

  9. blarg1987

    How can the state ow 8 trillion when you said in 2010 it owed 5? based even on your figures there is some fiddiling or porkies being told.

    But why do you not write your on blog on this issue, go to the TPA, adam smith etc and ask them to publish your work, maybe even become a financial columnist for a newpaper if your data is accurate as you keep implying then they would bite of their hand to have you would they not?

    P.S. have you taken this to your MP?

  10. OldLb

    How do you know what the state owes?

    1. 1.2 trillion for borrowing
    2. 0.4 trillion for PFI
    3. Pensions. 2010, 5.01 trillion, rising at 0.734 trillion a year. Do the maths, its 2013
    4. Nuclear decommissioning – another 100 bn

    All liabilities unless you are committing accounting fraud. FRS17 and GAAP for the debts.

    Meanwhile, unless you can post the details of how much the state owes for pensions, you’re talking bollocks.

  11. blarg1987

    I was just referring to your previous post on this article and the numbers you claimed cam from ONS.

    So I assume your last paragraph is aimed at yourself?

  12. OldLb

    No aimed at you.

    You keep saying the ONS is wrong, but you don’t provide any alternative numbers.

    Hence you are talking bollocks.

    Provide some numbers, some evidence, and then you can start asking sensible questions.

    For example, you did ask one, but then didn’t provide any evidence afterwards.

    The reason for the increase is that the 2005 number for the pension debt is an even bigger underestimate than the 2010 figure [ONS numbers]

    In your mixed up world you think the number must be an overestimate, but can’t provide one shred of evidence as to what the number is.

    So its back to the talking bollocks explanation.

    Until I see the evidence that you have a number, and the support as to why that number is accurate, its a pretty safe conclusion.

  13. blarg1987

    You have seen my evidence as I forwarded the fullfacts link which you dispute also you did not explain where the 4 trillion magically apperard from so either the 2005 ffigure was wrong or the 2010 figure was wrong.

    Plus where does the 3 trillion in the last 3 years come from :s also you wrote to your MP or the other places as i recommended if the numbers are solid and data is sound then they would surely want to recruit you and I do not mean that in a sarcastic way.

  14. OldLb

    The full facts is wrong for the reasons I’ve already explained.

    Full facts state Pensions aren’t a problem because they are paid over 60 years. [Hmm, 18 year olds earning pension rights with a life expectancy of 120 years, makes that 100]

    However, lets look at paying out 50K a year pensions instead of 5K.

    According to fullfacts, that is affordable because they payments are still over 60 (100) years.

    Fullfacts is wrong.

    Now the for the difference. Has it occurred to you that the 2005 figure is an underestimate? It is. It’s because to make the numbers look smaller, the government assumes it has pensions invested in assets. Even you know its unfunded which means no assets.

    So because asset returns have dropped (QE), the report a higher figure in 2010 than 2005 (and other reasons too). However, the asset return has no effect on the debts, because they have no assets.

    Both numbers are underestimates of the debts.

    If you really want to make the number really small, just tell people if you had invested in Apple shares, or bought lots of Gold when Gordon was paying it off, its all affordable.

    if you had bought Apple that is.

    It’s unfunded there are no assets so asset rates aren’t relevant.

    What should be used is inflation. with 2% inflation 1 pound now is the same as 1.02 pounds in a years time. That’s the correct discount rate.

    The inflation rate is below asset returns, and that makes the debt even bigger.

    However. correct rate or not, its still in excess of 6.5 trillion. With the other debts that’s 8 trillion.

    It doesn’t matter. 4 trillion, 8 trillion, 20 trillion, all scenarios are that they can’t pay. Not that they won’t pay.

    So they will start defaulting. Lets see one example how. Increase the retirement age.


    Glasgow continues to have the lowest life expectancy in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics.

    Figures for 2004-2006 and 2008-2010, show that men in the city live to an average age of 71 and women to 78.


    So very shortly, the men in Glasgow’s expected payouts will be zero.

    Nothing like shafting the poor is there when you’re in charge of the state.

    It’s the poor who’ve been shafted the most.

  15. OldLb

    See the post on the explanation of the numbers.

    Now again, to prove you aren’t talking bollocks.

    How much does the state owe for pensions in your world?

    You’ve never answered.

    You won’t comment on full facts flaws either.

    No number for the state pension published by full facts. None.

    Hence the correct number is the actuarial number put out by the ONS. [Bar the discount rate issue]

    Post the number. How much is owed for pensions

  16. blarg1987

    Well fullfacts pointed out that it is impossible to predict future liabilities in detail as there are so many factors that can not be calculated.

    You are only working out a worse case scenario, not what the actual numbers are.

    If fullfacts is wrong have you writtten to them to tell them as it is important as they do want factual based reporting.

  17. OldLb

    It is perfectly possible to predict very accurately the present value of those liabilities.

    This is the approach taken by the ONS, and bar the issue of assuming assets as a discount rate, its perfectly accurate.

    This is is not a worst case scenario. This is the most likely scenario, and the error bounds quite small.

    So again, you refuse to post any numbers. There is no number on full facts.

    You are making it up unless you can provide a number.

    NOTE. There is no number on fullfacts.

    Why don’t you write to them, or we could do it as a joint effort if you want to have a contrast, as to what the number is.

  18. Mark Fitch

    Late to the party but this is brilliantly clear and spot on

  19. Mark Fitch

    Late to the party but this is brilliantly clear and spot on

  20. Abby King

    Excellent, clear and succinct. In support of your point, it does seem that MPs have some how found the money to fund their own pay rises, while trying to convince the rest of us they’re broke so we can’t afford to pay for education or health care. Doesn’t take too much imagination to see what kind of a society they want to create…

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