The myth of meritocracy is today’s version of the divine right of kings, and it is playing much the same political function. Call it the divine right of King’s School alumni.
Another week, another report on the growing gap between rich and poor. The latest, from ACOSS, reminds us that the top 10% of households has been racing ahead of the rest, with the result that almost half of Australia’s wealth is now in their hands. Housing wealth is particularly skewed, a finding unlikely to surprise any first-time buyer who has tried to find a house in Sydney or Melbourne without bankrupting themselves. If Charles Dickens were to reincarnate in Australia, he’d probably make Ebenezer Scrooge a small-time property magnate from Mosman or Toorak, with a penchant for penning angry letters to The Australian in defence of negative gearing.
The Coalition has made its position on this situation quite clear. Hockey’s latest advice to those locked out of the housing market – “get a good job that pays good money” – is only the latest in a string of pearlers. It follows the same logic as last year’s helpful explanation of how he expected out-of-work young people to survive without an income: “I would expect you’d be in a job”.
Welcome to the world of lifters and leaners, where the haves and have-nots are all equally deserving of their fate. In this world it is pointless to mention that there are five people out of work for every available vacancy: when one of them does find a job they are to be congratulated for ‘lifting’ and the remaining four condemned for ‘leaning’.
What does it mean when Hockey and others say that “governments must pursue equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” while vigorously pursuing greater inequality on both fronts? Last year NATSEM modelling showed that the federal budget would significantly worsen income inequality, with the disposable income of the bottom fifth of households down 6.6% (for couples with kids) or 10.8% (for single parents) by 2017/18, while the top fifth would barely be touched.
But the government backed down this year right? Ahem. As of this year’s budget, NATSEM’s modelling finds that Coalition policies would hit the disposable income of the bottom fifth of households by…wait for it… 7.1% (for couples with kids) or 8% (for single parents) by 2018/19, while the top fifth will still be pretty much unscathed. Our political conversation is so stunted that a slight slowdown in the rate at which we’re screwing over single parents has been welcomed as progress.
In this context, the real appeal of equality of opportunity as an idea lies not in its implementation but the aura of moral legitimacy it confers upon inequality of outcomes. As Bill Garner put it in his response to the lifters and leaners speech, it is “the version of equality you claim to believe in when you do not believe in equality at all.”
As a thought experiment, imagine the likely response of the Coalition (or most other parties for that matter) to the following proposals:
*100% inheritance taxes (any leaner can be lucky enough to be born to rich parents – unequally distributed windfalls are a clear example of unequal opportunity)
*Mandating anonymous shortlisting of job applications (one study found that candidates with a Middle Eastern name, for example, have to submit 64% more applications to get the same number of interviews as candidates with an ‘Anglo’ name, while another found that a female fellowship applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than a male applicant to be deemed equally competent.)
*Switching to 100% needs-based schools funding, with punitively high luxury taxes on fee-charging schools (surely equality of access to education from birth is ground zero for equality of opportunity?)
Perhaps Milton and Rose Friedman had policies such as these in mind when they wrote “No arbitrary obstacles should prevent people from achieving those positions for which their talents fit them and which their values lead them to seek. Not birth, nationality, colour, religion, sex, nor any other irrelevant characteristic should determine the opportunities that are open to a person…”
If we genuinely believe that every human has equal worth at birth, then paying lip-service to social mobility is not enough. There is more than enough evidence to show that we live in a decidedly unmeritocratic world. In fact, this evidence is so strong that it justifies a shift in the burden of moral proof. Rather than assuming that an unequal world is fair unless proven otherwise, let us assume that an unequal world is unfair unless proven otherwise.
Miriam Lyons is the former Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Development. With Ian McAuley, she has just co-authored ‘Governomics’ which has been published by Melbourne University Press.
 Friedman & Friedman (1980), Free To Choose, p. 145