“Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy” is a famous phrase, and in January 1996, Harriet Harman, Labour spokesman for health in the British House of Commons, became an object of scorn on both sides of the House by sending her 11-year-old son to a school outside the public sector, chosen by entrance examination. She was later, after 1997, a minister in the Blair government.

She was only following her leader, it must be said. In fact it was said, repeatedly. Prime Minister Tony Blair sends his son to another such school, hardly less selective, and both events caused public outrage, since Labour is against selection. Left-wing hypocrisy is suddenly a fashionable topic again.

To live right and think left has its advantages, after all—you get the material benefits of the one with the moral satisfactions of the other—and it has been about for much of the century. In fact, most languages have witty descriptions for it, all coined before the war. The English speak of “champagne socialists,” the French have gauche de luxe and the Germans Salonbolshewiker. So the hunt for hypocrisy is an old one, and there are those who are happy to be back at the game. The prime minister of the day, John Major, took all his chances at parliamentary question-time. “I’m just being tough on hypocrisy and tough on the causes of hypocrisy,” he told Tony Blair blandly in 1996, to Conservative cheers and jeers, echoing a phrase the Labour leader had once thought he had made his own. Meanwhile, after a stormy meeting with her own party, Ms. Harman, who is married to a prominent union official, kept her job—just. But with a year to go before a general election, the matter was not soon forgiven or forgotten. There are several explanations to be offered for her behavior that are more or less convincing.

There are also her own explanations, which are not. She was only, she told an interviewer, making a choice that thousands of parents have to make for their children; but Labour is publicly committed to abolishing the right of parents to choose. The present school system in Britain, she claims, which is divided between public and private, is not of Labour’s making; but in fact it is, since it derives from the Butler Education Act of 1944, which Labour (in coalition) supported. In any case, there is nothing unsocialist about selection. It was practiced widely in Eastern Europe in the days of the Soviet Empire, and it was endorsed by Labour down to the 1960’s. Communism, in its day, had nothing to do with equality, and the privileges of its ruling class were notorious.

There are contradictions when a dedicated egalitarian seeks to abolish educational selection, in Britain or elsewhere. To start at the top: If Eton College and other fee-paying schools were abolished, education would probably become even more unequal, since Britain enjoys freedom of movement with its neighbors as a member of the European Union. If fee paying were abolished, the rich could still send their children abroad to private schools that would probably cost even more, since they would involve travel costs as well as boarding and expert teaching. So a universal public sector at home might well prove not less elitist but more. As for the middle tier, or grammar schools, if you abolish them and let Eton survive, as Labour has long been pledged to do, you destroy the ladder by which the poor have traditionally climbed into the professional classes—in which case, in a competitive world, Etonians would enjoy even better chances of promotion than now. These are arguments that Labour leaders would prefer not to hear, and they hope no one will have the wit or audacity to utter them. They are likely, in that hope, to be disappointed.

The world is plainly right to be tough on hypocrisy and its causes, whether left or right. And it will be, in an age where the media are merciless to those in office and no less merciless to those who seek it. Power can expect no pity. But I suspect there is another issue here, and one that is so far unheard. I mean the case of the justified sinner—one who believes, and honestly believes, that he has fulfilled his moral duty to God, or to some abstraction like social justice, when he has declared his allegiance. It is enough, he thinks, to speak up. A declaration of virtue can then be used to justify a life of sin. But my term is borrowed from a novel now seldom read, though it deserves to be, and I should explain.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a horror story by a Scottish poet named James Hogg. It appeared anonymously in 1824, and it tells the grim tale of Robert Wringhim, who is legally the son of a land-owning laird but has been strictly and piously brought up by a Calvinist minister who is probably his real father. From boyhood on, Wringhim justified a life of deceit and violent crime by a certainty that he is one of the elect of God. His sins are divinely justified, and he cannot be damned. “Hath He not made one vessel to honor and another to dishonor, as in the case with myself and thee?” Wringhim tells a wretched servant who has convicted him of lying. That is only a beginning. Wringhim grows up to kill his elder brother, and when his father dies of a broken heart, he inherits the estate and continues his profitable career of murder.

The fable, in a melodramatic way, is apposite to our times, and there may even be those who find Hogg’s book too close for comfort. Wringhim was son and heir to a laird, for one thing, and it is notable that parties claiming a socialist tradition are seldom led by the low-bred. Tony Blair, who went to a private school and then to Oxford, is today the most socially superior leader of any British political party. Conservatives, by contrast, gave up electing gentlemen to lead them as long ago as 1965, when Edward Heath replaced Sir Alec Douglas-Home; and John Major, who was brought up in rented rooms in south London and went to no university, has the humblest social origins of any British prime minister since the war. Harriet Harman, true to form, is the daughter of an eminent physician, was privately educated, and is a niece to the Countess of Longford. It may seem entirely natural for such people to give their own children a privileged education. That is all they know. It may even have seemed natural to them to suppose they could get away with it, and Ms. Harman, in her interviews, sounded surprised as well as bitter at the bother she caused. Was not one vessel made to honor, she may well have felt, and another to dishonor? I do not know if she has read Hogg’s novel. But her frank reply that it is all right to violate principle if others do it too strikes a sympathetic chord.

The justified sinner in the post-Calvinist style, thinking left and living right, is not necessarily a hypocrite. He may genuinely believe that a declaration of social justice is enough. He may genuinely believe that he is not bound by the rules he insists should be enforced on others. Do as I say, not as I do. The purity of his convictions justifies him in seeking riches, power, honor, and privileges for himself and his own. If anyone challenges him, he will reply with more declarations about social justice.

That, after all, has been the spirit of the century. Psychoanalysis has long encouraged the belief that to be open about one’s desires is to render them harmless, or at least less harmful. As a view it may be faintly ridiculous, but it is too open to be called hypocritical. It is rather common to think that frankness justifies a violation of principle; it is entirely possible to be sincere about social justice and to believe, at the same time, that it has nothing to do with oneself.

The type, which is little more than a century old, has only a short history, since the ideal of social equality has had only a short life. In earlier centuries, when charity to the poor was a recognized duty, its object was not to abolish poverty but to mitigate it; and even when the French revolutionaries of 1789 spoke of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, the middle term meant no more than equality before the law. Liberals were openly the enemies of equality of condition. Gladstone, who became the first Liberal prime minister of Britain in 1868, called himself an Inequalitarian, and believed (perhaps rightly) that he had invented the word. It meant that if equality of condition were by some miracle to be achieved, he, as an exponent of free trade and the free market, would be in favor of abolishing it. To establish equality, after all, or even to try to establish it, is to destroy liberty. You cannot have equality of condition and liberty, too, and the point was once widely understood and openly proclaimed.

The cult of social equality, on the other hand, is new, though like other new cults, it has its precursors. In a maiden speech in the House of Lords in February 1812, the sixth Lord BvTon, nowadays better remembered as a poet than as a legislator, passionately defended the Nottingham workers whose riots against new machinery had recently been suppressed; but several years later, in exile in Italy, he showed no concern about the welfare of his own workers when his lawyers sold his mines to provide a settlement to the wife he had deserted and to pay debts arising from his profligate style of life. Byron’s eminent example casts a long shadow forward across our own century. Picasso supported the French Communist Party during the occupation of Paris, but when I was there soon after the liberation, it was said that if you wanted to know where to eat well, it was enough to ask where Picasso had dined last night. Jean-Paul Sartre, who called the Soviet Union the better side, sat on a resistance committee during the Occupation, but that is all he did. Unlike Samuel Beckett, who was actively anti- Nazi, Sartre and his friend Simone de Beauvoir took no action against the Nazis but shared a table at the Cafe de F’lore in the Boulevard St. Germain, where they sat for hours talking and writing. “We were intellectuals, you see,” Simone de Beauvoir told an interviewer years later, shocked that anyone should suppose they should have performed active service. To hold views that were politically correct was enough, in her view, and it justified doing nothing.

The tradition has its comic aspects. Bertrand Russell, the third Earl, who was the hero of the New Left in its heady days in the 1960’s, never to the end of his life learned how to make a cup of tea, in spite of elaborate written instructions left by his housekeeper on her afternoons off No doubt a hatred of nuclear arms and an incapacity to boil a kettle are not incompatible. Tom Driberg, for years a leading figure on the Labour Left in the House of Commons and eventually party chairman, was once heard raising a patrician voice to a waiter: “What do you mean, you can’t get oysters?” That was on his way home from a party conference, and the experience must have taught him that political campaigning can mean having to rough it. Aneurin Bevan, who led the Labour Left in the 1950’s, was famous in his last years for living on a diet of caviar and champagne, and boasted the richest complexion to be seen in British public life, along with one of its amplest waistlines. The rulers of Marxist states, meanwhile, like Tito of Yugoslavia, Ceausescu of Rumania, and Mengistu of Ethiopia, built lavish palaces for their own use, some of which have now been thriftily turned into luxury hotels. Nenni, leader of the Italian Socialist Party in its Marxist days, once posed for a group of cameramen after a sumptuous picnic, held out a boiled egg, and announced, “Give it to the poor”; and President Castro of Cuba is rumored to be one of the richest men in the world. It is one of the consolations of middle-aged reformers that the inequalities they revile will in all likelihood outlive them. But they should not suppose that their conduct will pass unnoticed, even while they live.