On Human Worth: A Christian Vindication of Equality, by Duncan B. Forrester

(SCM Press, 2001, £17.95, ISBN 0 334 02825 6) Paper back £17.95. Order this book
This book has the wrong title. It is entirely about equality: the roots of the idea, the importance of it, the lack of it, and how we might embody it. The book should have been called On Equality.
Forrester begins with anecdote from India, he prints a diary which recounts a life of poverty, and he tells the stories Jesus told; but he also deals with complex theological, economic and sociological literature; and it is all about equality or the lack of it. It is not just about poverty: it is about inequality and the importance of equality.
The book discusses the meanings of equality, poverty and social exclusion; it finds the roots of the pursuit of equality in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; it discusses the history of equality; and it asks what we, the Church, and the State can do to promote equality.
What will interest readers of this newsletter most is that in this comprehensive and well-researched book social security is discussed in somewhat vague terms, and it is not well related to the main line of argument, whereas health care is discussed in close relation to the concept of equality and the NHS is treated as a paradigm of equality-based social policy. Child Benefit is neither in the text nor in the index – yet surely this is the paradigm, creating an element of absolute equality across the entire child population. Forrester has read Tony Atkinson, Bill Jordan and Philippe van Parijs (though perhaps not as much of their writings as he might have done), but not Tony Walter or Hermione Parker. There is no recognition of the existence of debate on the extension of universal benefits as a means of enabling people to become autonomous citizens in charge of their own economic destinies.
This is not to complain that Forrester has somehow got it wrong; it is rather to say that there is something fundamentally flawed about social policy debate in this country. Central to that debate are education and health (and Forrester offers significant material on education, even though in the conclusion he tells us that he hasn’t done so). As Forrester shows, vital to the reduction of health inequalities and many other social ills is income equality: yet public debate on the nature of our tax and benefits system, and of the options facing it, is rarely heard, and, when it is heard, it is conducted in naïve terms (‘means-testing’ and ‘targeting’ are not synonymous) and with little relation to the detail of the system being discussed or to the precise likely effects of options considered. There has been almost no public debate about the move to tax credits. Why not? Because we regard these as technical issues with little to do with the fundamental structures of our society. They are not. They determine how we shall live together as a society.
Forrester’s book is a passionate book, which is why it is a pity that the title does not evoke the passion which On Equality might have evoked.
What is needed now is an equally passionate book about tax and social security: about why they matter, about how they currently contribute to poverty, social exclusion and inequality, and about how this situation might be put right.

Technical Commissions: Leo Wildmann Symposium: Reports presented at the 27th General Assembly of the International Social Security Association, 9th – 15th September 2001, in Stockholm (ISSA, 2001).
Relevant reports are on telecommunications, performance management, pay as you go pensions, poverty, trends in family protection, research, and managing pension schemes. The reports describe the situation, outline issues for discussion and future work, and give useful lists of references.
However, little if any of the discussion is on the linkage between longer term policy change and the detail of the issues discussed. For instance, in relation to technology: the issues discussed in relation to telecommunications and computerisation would look very different if the aim were to establish universal benefits or tax credits, neither of which receives a mention.
The final three reports, on ‘social security for all’, are particularly relevant to readers of this newsletter. The first of these, on the diversity of systems in developed countries and on how these are not always appropriate in developing countries, suggests that “a variety of different approaches combining conventional social insurance, social assistance, state and private sector provisioning, and schemes operated by membership-based organizations and voluntary agencies, will be needed,” (report by Dharam Ghai, p.13). But the logic of the argument suggests that such schemes are not necessarily appropriate, and that all options should be considered: presumably with universal child benefits and a small citizen’s pension among them.
In the second of these reports, a multi-pillar scheme for pension provision is suggested to meet the diverse needs of different parts of the labour force. A greater diversity would be contributed by a flat-rate tax-funded citizen’s pension (as in the Netherlands), but this option is not explicitly explored.
The third of these reports identifies the difficulty of collecting tax in the developing world as a problem related to universal benefit schemes. A question not addressed is whether the implementation of universal benefit schemes might not improve the state’s ability to collect tax by linking the administration of a citizen’s income to the collection of tax on all other income.