Is levelling up really levelling down? The great inequality debate

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


One of the government’s flagship slogans (and campaigns) is ‘levelling up’. Making society more equal and fairer is surely a positive thing, and good for all. According to the Equality Trust:

‘UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. People in more equal societies live longer, have better mental health and have better chances for a good education regardless of their background. Community life is stronger where the income gap is narrower, children do better at school and they are less likely to become teenage parents. When inequality is reduced, people trust each other more and there is less violence and rates of imprisonment are lower.’

So equality of opportunity – or perhaps more radically, allowing everyone (more or less) to have the same income – is a no brainer. If the economic consequences of the pandemic are that the poor seem to have got poorer while the wealthy have done even better, tackling this disparity should be a priority for policy. But is equality really all it is cracked up to be? While everyone would agree that poverty is a bad thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should get the same. Even those on minimum wage in the UK are much better off than people in poorer but more equal countries. People vary in how talented, skilful and hard-working they are, but would people take risks or slog to get qualifications if there were no material benefit to themselves?

Should we give greater rewards to the smartest and most industrious people – especially if it creates a more productive society that benefits everyone to some degree? Or is inequality fundamentally unfair and divisive? What should the role of governments be: to legislate for equality or get out of the way and let talent, hard work and personal vocation determine people’s incomes?

Hilary Salt
actuary; founder, First Actuarial

Don Watkins
author, Free Market Revolution, Equal Is Unfair and I Am Justice

Kevin Rooney
convenor, AoI Education Forum; politics teacher; co-author, The Blood Stained Poppy