Economic inequality has become a hot topic recently, with Pope Francis becoming just the latest high profile individual to criticise what is seen as a growing trend.
Last night, however, another big name expressed a very different viewpoint — economic inequality can be good, but some people are not clever enough to succeed.
Boris Johnson, the right wing Conservative party’s Mayor of London, was talking at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, a neo-liberal free-market think tank. The speech was titled “What Would Maggie do Today?” but the section that caught the most attention today only dealt indirectly with Margaret Thatcher. Instead, it focused on what Johnson saw as the link between IQ and economic success.
Here’s the entire passage [emphasis ours]:
Like it or not, the free market economy is the only show in town. Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer.
No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. [According to the Guardian, Johnson then asked whether anyone in the audience had a low IQ. To muted laughter he asked: “Over 16% anyone? Put up your hands.”] The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
And for one reason or another — boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.
The Mayor of London’s speech also found Johnson criticising what he saw as an unneeded rise in economic inequality, and also announced his support of plans for a return of selective state schools (known as grammar schools in the U.K.) and more state-funded scholarships for academically successful students to attend private schools. Johnson probably felt that he was simply calling for a more meritocratic society.
However, Johnson’s assertion that IQ was linked with success, and his implication that economic inequality could act as a spur to the talented, prompted the biggest response amongst the British left. The left-wing tabloid the Daily Mirror quotes a Labour Party source in an article titled “Boris Johnson: Millions of people too STUPID to get on in life”:
“This shows how out of touch the Conservatives if they think it is acceptable to write off the life chances of millions of their fellow citizens.”
In the Guardian, Dean Burnett argues that IQ is, by design, a relative figure, and that links between IQ and personal wealth have found little to no correlation.
Even Nick Clegg, the leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats who sits in a coalition government with Johnson’s Conservative party, felt forced to criticise the “careless elitism” of Johnson’s comments in an interview with the BBC radio.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Johnson’s comments is that Johnson is a remarkably savvy populist politician, and one who is rumoured to have big ambitions to one day be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. If he says things like this in a public speech, chances are he believes that a large section of the voting public agree with him. And if he thinks that, he could well be right.