Socialists in foxholes.

[Updated below]

On Sunday The Times recycled an age-old question by listing a vast number of lefties who send their kids to private schools: is this sheer selfishness, a hypocritical and cowardly violation of one’s own professed principles? Or can the decision somehow be rendered consistent?

My own position for a while now has been to distinguish public and private wills and identities. That is, I think we can think about the dilemma best by saying people like Polly Toynbee and Diane Abbott have dual roles – as a journalist and a politician respectively, both are citizens of this country who must assess the fairness of laws from a general point of view. At the same time, however, both are also mothers, and that role is distinct and deeply moving and seems to give rise to its own set of thoughts and obligations. Whereas as citizens we must think about everyone, as parents we surely fail if we do anything short of doing the best by our own children.

That’s why I think there’s a definite sense in which it’s perfectly consistent to spend your life calling for the abolition of private schools on the grounds that they violate your sense of justice, whilst sending your children there regardless simply because whilst they do exist, you naturally and legitimately want to maximise your child’s chance of prospering in life.

You might be right to sense an uneasy element of schizophrenia here. I’m not entirely convinced myself that the identity of citizen can be so easily subordinated. Perhaps it should override and regulate your role as parent. After all, we obviously wouldn’t think it acceptable to gun down rival kids for places at the best school on the grounds that we can do ‘anything’ to help our own children. The general perspective must confer some constraints. And I certainly see egalitarians that spend their lives calling for redistribution whilst bathing in their own riches as vulgar frauds. Yet maybe the same argument I just gave in defence of Abbott et al. is similarly applicable here: you call via the ballot box for your own money to be taken away, but it would be too alienating to donate it voluntarily when the coercion isn’t present. Yeah, I smell bullshit too.

The other argument, of course, is that one individual’s decision does nothing in itself to change mass unfairness. Only through collective coordination would such sacrifices ever be rendered useful. I recall Zoe Williams, the Guardian columnist, trying this one on me on Twitter once. But I smell bull here too. I shouldn’t tithe and do my bit to reduce global poverty because I can’t eradicate it entirely on my own? Really? Each individual act or inaction has avoidable marginal effects. And I’m yet to see why other people being bad means you may as well join in too.

Update: I’m recalling a scene now from The Ides of March – that Clooney political thriller that came out last year. At one point the presidential candidate is being interviewed about the death penalty. He opposes it, and is asked what he would do if his wife was murdered. He responds by saying he would hunt down and kill the murderer. A contradiction? No. As society, we must be better than the individual, and he would fully expect to face the consequences of his act – viz. jail time. So it seems that he is arguing that as a citizen, he opposes the death penalty, but as a husband, he would take the logic for it and execute it anyway. All the same tensions and arguments for and against outlined above still apply. It’s just another example of such a dilemma to test your intuitions on.

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