As a new member of the Liberal Democrats, I thought it was about time that I came out in a real defence of one of their policies. One of my favourite policies is the Pupil Premium. The policy pledges £7bn towards giving the poorest children a better start in life.

Education is becoming a bit of a bug-bear of mine at the minute, ironically as I come to an end of mine. There is still a worryingly low number of “poor” students who end up going to university. Now I’m not advocating that all students should go to university, far from it, but it is shocking that in a developed a country such as the UK that we suffer from such terrible social mobility. The money is given directly to schools and they are not directed specifically on how to spend it, but of course is aimed at helping the poorest students. For more click here.

So why is the Pupil Premium a good idea? Well, its a perfect application of John Rawls’ difference principle. Which of course, makes it brilliant. It also negates the issue of meritocracy.

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions of offices open to all.” Rawls places a lexical priority on (b), ensuring that this part must always come first for the principle to be upheld. Point (b) offers an equality of opportunity.”

The Pupil Premium encourages an equal opportunity for all. It helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds compete with their wealthier counterparts. Why is this a problem for the government? Surely university should be based on merit, and therefore we should allow education to be solely based on meritocracy? Er – nope!

Rawls on meritocracy

Rawls’ argument starts at the “luck” of birth. The luck of birth is the idea that people have no moral claim over the attributes they are born with. Rawls wanted to nullify these effects and allow for equal opportunities. The rhetoric of equal opportunity still isn’t good enough for John Rawls; whilst it negates the issue of the randomness of birth it still doesn’t mean we are equal. Whilst everybody is in the ‘race’ for the job/university place, they aren’t starting at the same point.

The solution to this would be to ensure a ‘fair’ starting point for individuals. The Pupil Premium is part of a ‘fair equality of opportunities’ scheme, the policy increases spending per pupil for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Rawls would remain unsatisfied with this solution. This may remove some of the fundamental socio-economic restrictions “but it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents.”

Rawls argues that a meritocracy in its purest form is flawed. It all depends on what an individual can claim credit for, the luck of birth plays too much of a role in life to abide by a meritocracy. Effort doesn’t really matter when discussing meritocracy and this is unjust. A crude example shows the problems of not rewarding effort, a small man could build a house in three days and try harder than a man who can build a house in one day, who would you reward the most? The main principle behind meritocracy is contribution and ultimately we aren’t totally in control of how much we can contribute.

Are we entitled to claim that our “assets” belong to us?

“Rawls’ response is to invoke the distinction between the self and its possession in the strongest version of that distinction, and so to claim that, strictly speaking, there is nothing that ‘I’, qua pure subject to possession, have – nothing that is attached, rather than related, to me – nothing at least in the strong, constitutive sense of possession necessary to a desert base.”

Rawls argues that all things considered, we don’t “own ourselves”, we can defend our rights as declared in the first principle but we do not own our abilities and talents. “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place.” Rawls argues that our starting point is arbitrary, but what we should seek are fair institutions to mitigate the arbitrariness of birth.

“The natural distribution [of abilities and talents] is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”

Rawls continues to further strengthen his argument. Even if we did have self-ownership and we value effort and (to some extent) contribution, we have no control over the market in which we sell our attributes and talents. For example, The Beatles sold millions of records in the 1960/70s, but would they do the same in 2012? We have no control over the condition of the market, which further adds to the moral arbitration and limits what we can claim to morally deserve. We are entitled to reap the rewards of a society which values or attributes, but we are not morally deserving of them, and to claim otherwise is foolhardy.
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