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Progressives want diversity but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests. These words alerted me to how the progressive dilemma lurks beneath many aspects of current politics: national tax and redistribution policies; the asylum and immigration debate; development aid budgets; EU integration and spending on the poorer southern and east European states; and even the tensions between America built on political ideals and mass immigration and Europe based on nation states with core ethnic-linguistic solidarities.
Thinking about the conflict between solidarity and diversity is another way of asking a question as old as human society itself: who is my brother? With whom do I share mutual obligations?
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The traditional conservative Burkean view is that our affinities ripple out from our families and localities, to the nation and not very far beyond. That view is pitted against a liberal universalist one which sees us in some sense equally obligated to all human beings from Bolton to Burundi — an idea associated with the universalist aspects of Christianity and Islam, with Kantian universalism and with left-wing internationalism. Science is neutral in this dispute, or rather it stands on both sides of the argument.
Evolutionary psychology stresses both the universality of most human traits and — through the notion of kin selection and reciprocal altruism — the instinct to favour our own. Social psychologists also argue that the tendency to perceive in-groups and out-groups, however ephemeral, is innate.
In any case, Burkeans claim to have common sense on their side. They argue that we feel more comfortable with, and are readier to share with, and sacrifice for, those with whom we have shared histories and similar values. To put it bluntly — most of us prefer our own kind. So it is worth stressing what preferring our own kind does not mean, even for a Burkean. It does not mean that we are necessarily hostile to other kinds or cannot empathise with outsiders.
There are those who do dislike other kinds but in Britain they seem to be quite a small minority. In complex societies, most of us belong simultaneously to many in-groups — family, profession, class, hobby, locality, nation — and an ability to move with ease between groups is a sign of maturity. An in-group is not, except in the case of families, a natural or biological category and the people who are deemed to belong to it can change quickly, as we saw so disastrously in Bosnia. Certainly, those we include in our in-group could be a pretty diverse crowd, especially in a city like London.
Moreover, modern liberal societies cannot be based on a simple assertion of group identity — the very idea of the rule of law, of equal legal treatment for everyone regardless of religion, wealth, gender or ethnicity, conflicts with it. On the other hand, if you deny the assumption that humans are social, group-based primates with constraints, however imprecise, on their willingness to share, you find yourself having to defend some implausible positions: for example that we should spend as much on development aid as on the NHS, or that Britain should have no immigration controls at all.
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Yet everyday we make similar calculations in the distribution of our own resources. Even a well-off, liberal-minded Briton who already donates to charities will spend, say,?
The extent of our obligation to those to whom we are not connected through either kinship or citizenship is in part a purely private, charitable decision. But it also has policy implications, and not just in the field of development aid. For example, significant NHS resources are spent each year on foreign visitors, especially in London. Many of us might agree in theory that the needs of desperate outsiders are often greater than our own. But we would object if our own parent or child received inferior treatment because of resources consumed by non-citizens.
Is it possible to reconcile these observations about human preferences with our increasingly open, fluid and value-diverse societies? At one level, yes. Our liberal democracies still work fairly well; indeed it is one of the achievements of modernity that people have learned to tolerate and share with people very unlike themselves.
On the other hand, the logic of solidarity, with its tendency to draw boundaries, and the logic of diversity, with its tendency to cross them, do at times pull apart. Thanks to the erosion of collective norms and identities, in particular of class and nation, and the recent surge of immigration into Europe, this may be such a time. The modern idea of citizenship goes some way to accommodating the tension between solidarity and diversity.
Citizenship is not an ethnic, blood and soil concept but a more abstract political idea — implying equal legal, political and social rights and duties for people inhabiting a given national space. Both aspects of citizenship imply a notion of mutual obligation. Critics have argued that this idea of national community is anachronistic — swept away by globalisation, individualism and migration — but it still has political resonance.
Membership in such a community implies acceptance of moral rules, however fuzzy, which underpin the laws and welfare systems of the state. But British values grow, in part, out of a specific history and even geography. Too rapid a change in the make-up of a community not only changes the present, it also, potentially, changes our link with the past. As Bob Rowthorn wrote Prospect, February , we may lose a sense of responsibility for our own history — the good things and shameful things in it — if too many citizens no longer identify with it.
Is this a problem? Surely Britain in has become too diverse and complex to give expression to a common culture in the present, let alone the past. Diversity in this context is usually code for ethnic difference. But that is only one part of the diversity story, albeit the easiest to quantify and most emotionally charged. The progressive dilemma is also revealed in the value and generational rifts that emerged with such force in the s.
At the Prospect roundtable mentioned above, Patricia Hewitt, now trade secretary, recalled an example of generational conflict from her Leicester constituency. Evidence that even close genetic ties do not always produce solidarity. Greater diversity can produce real conflicts of values and interests, but it also generates unjustified fears. Exposure to a wider spread of lifestyles, plus more mobility and better education, has helped to combat some of those fears — a trend reinforced by popular culture and the expansion of higher education graduates are notably more tolerant than non-graduates.
There is less overt homophobia, sexism or racism and much more racial intermarriage in Britain than 30 years ago and racial discrimination is the most politically sensitive form of unfairness.
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But 31 per cent of people still admit to being racially prejudiced. Feelings of suspicion and hostility towards outsiders are latent in most of us. The visibility of ethnic difference means that it often overshadows other forms of diversity. Changes in the ethnic composition of a city or neighbourhood can come to stand for the wider changes of modern life. Some expressions of racism, especially by old people, can be read as declarations of dismay at the passing of old ways of life though this makes it no less unpleasant to be on the receiving end.
The different appearance of many immigrants is an outward reminder that they are, at least initially, strangers. If welfare states demand that we pay into a common fund on which we can all draw at times of need, it is important that we feel that most people have made the same effort to be self-supporting and will not take advantage.
We need to be reassured that strangers, especially those from other countries, have the same idea of reciprocity as we do. Absorbing outsiders into a community worthy of the name takes time. Negotiating the tension between solidarity and diversity is at the heart of politics. But both left and right have, for different reasons, downplayed the issue.
And the right, in Britain at least, has sidestepped the conflict, partly because it is less interested in solidarity than the left, but also because it is still trying to prove that it is comfortable with diversity. But is there any hard evidence that the progressive dilemma actually exists in the real world of political and social choices? In most EU states the percentage of GDP taken in tax is still at historically high levels, despite the increase in diversity of all kinds. Yet it is also true that Scandinavian countries with the biggest welfare states have been the most socially and ethnically homogeneous states in the west.
By the same token the welfare state has always been weaker in the individualistic, ethnically divided US compared with more homogeneous Europe. They were also, clearly, a response to the depression and two world wars. Across the US as a whole, 70 per cent of the population are non-Hispanic whites — but of those in poverty only 46 per cent are non-Hispanic whites. So a disproportionate amount of tax income spent on welfare is going to minorities. The paper also finds that US states that are more ethnically fragmented than average spend less on social services.
The authors conclude that Americans think of the poor as members of a different group, whereas Europeans still think of the poor as members of the same group. Robert Putnam, the analyst of social capital, has also found a link between high ethnic mix and low trust in the US. There is some British evidence supporting this link too. Researchers at Mori found that the average level of satisfaction with local authorities declines steeply as the extent of ethnic fragmentation increases. Even allowing for the fact that areas of high ethnic mix tend to be poorer, Mori found that ethnic fractionalisation still had a substantial negative impact on attitudes to local government.
Starting from similar positions as homogeneous countries with high levels of redistribution, they have taken rather different approaches to immigration over the past few years. Although both countries place great stress on integrating outsiders, Sweden has adopted a moderately multicultural outlook. It has also adapted its economy somewhat, reducing job protection for older native males in order to create more low-wage jobs for immigrants in the public sector.
About 12 per cent of Swedes are now foreign-born and it is expected that by about 25 per cent of unders will be either foreign-born or the children of the foreign-born.