Forget fairness: concentrate on unfairness

Fairness is the latest political football, kicked disconsolately around England’s midfield with as little purpose as our footballers showed in South Africa. Or, to use another analogy, fairness has become a political cloaking device, providing cover for the Starship Enterprise of HB reform, or child benefit changes. But it is equally a cloaking device for the opposition’s lack of a real or incisive counter-argument against the relentless drift of our politics towards greater social division and neglect. And that process did not start in May this year, which is of course why the opposition is in such a pickle. All we have is a choice between Cameron and Osborne’s full-fat cuts programme, or Miliband and Johnson’s cuts-lite. No, I can’t believe it’s not butter either.

How has fairness come to be such a handy way of dissembling? Surely fairness is a virtue worth extolling, and why wouldn’t any decent-minded person sign up to it? The answer is simple: because no-one knows what it means. Fairness has become the Thomist theology of our day, and we spend our time fruitlessly arguing about how much of it can fit on the head of a pin. If we’re going to study pin-heads, I’d rather count angels than sift through the myriad ways in which fairness is used and abused.

The problem is that there is no such thing as fairness – there is only unfairness. Just as we don’t really know what healthiness is other than by the absence of disease, it is only by attacking unfairness that we can discern fairness. I know when I’m ill, and I know that I’m well when I’m not ill. I can define an unfair set of circumstances, and if I can remove that unfairness, then I’ll be left with fairness. The problem is that there is a tacit agreement amongst all politicians to deny this fundamental truth, and indeed to turn it on its head. Thus we are told that it’s naughty, churlish even, and naive in the extreme, to talk about equality of outcome. We are only allowed to talk about equality of opportunity. As if inequality of opportunity wasn’t absolutely an example of inequality of outcome in the first place.

So I’m unrepentantly going to point to what I think is the fundamental inequality of outcome in our society, the denial of which underpins all the nonsensical talk of fairness that so befogs us at the moment. It is the blatant fact that reward, in the sense of income from work, is totally, utterly, and irredeemably divorced from effort or deserts. Not only that, it is equally divorced from the social benefit that flows from it. This fact is so obvious that of course we hardly notice it. In my office, I see cleaning staff leaving just as I’m arriving. Most of them then go on to other jobs. As I’m leaving in the evening, they are back again. It’s hard, unpleasant, and vital work. I probably get paid 10 times as much as them. That is unfair. I have to make difficult decisions in my job, and as I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog, I’m bracing myself for making some even more difficult ones in the immediate future. I believe I’m “woath it” as Cheryl Kerl would say, but in so believing it is not necessary for me also to believe that the cleaners are 10 times less worthy. Of course this is but one of an almost infinite number of other exemplars: bankers versus social care workers, footballers versus nurses, celebrities versus refuse workers. The list goes on and on.

It is on the rock of this fundamental unfairness that all the superstructure of inequality rests. The talk of “hard-working” families subsidising work-shy scroungers is really the need to subsidise other equally hard workers on pitifully inadequate incomes. The talk of “broad backs” ignores how those backs got to be so broad in the first place. Doing something about this is horrendously difficult. I am not opposed to markets as such, and I’m not proposing that rewards determined by bureaucracy would be better than rewards determined through supply and demand. But without a frank acknowledgement that the rewards of work are not distributed either efficiently or effectively by the market as it is currently constituted then we will always be looking for the wrong policy levers, and trying to apply them in the wrong places.

Because there is no equality of outcome, there can be no equality of opportunity. The latter is a consequence of the former, and it is wishful thinking to suppose that cause and effect flow in the opposite direction. Until we face this inconvenient truth, Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband both, then no, we are not all in this together. Or, perhaps, we are all together in the same illusion.

6 thoughts on “Forget fairness: concentrate on unfairness

  1. As usual this is really well written, but I’m not sure I can entirely agree! The problem for me is the way subjective terms such as “fair” and “worth” are often confused (not here) with remuneration.

    I’d suggest that the rewards of work *are* ‘distributed effectively and efficiently’, however they may not be distributed as you (or I!) would like. Our pay after all is determined, if you’ll forgive the bluntness, by how easy we are to replace – how many others are there that can do our job – it’s that same old supply and demand thing at work again.

    I’m OK with this so long as we can ensure equality of opportunity with regards to education and I suspect this is where we’d find some(!) common ground. However I share your disquiet (that I suspect would exist in any system) of some people earning more than others irrespective of the effort in that work.

    • Thanks Phil for your usual challenging comment! As in everything else, it does come down to definitions, but I think it is hard to argue that a market that results in poorly paid, and sadly often equally poorly performing, care workers whilst also producing highly paid, say, cosmetic advertisers, is really working efficiently as a means of distributing social goods. If the market doesn’t “work” in that sense, it seems hardly a sufficient response to say, effectively, “Oh, well, that’s just one of those things!” Don’t forget that it is the same market mechanisms that produce extremes of wealth and poverty not only within countries, but between them. Do markets have to be untramelled still to count as markets? I don’t think so, and the political objective should be precisely to constrain markets and correct their tendency to inefficiency. We do that all the time anyway, with competition law, anti-trust suits, regulations of all types. What we haven’t done is regulate markets in order to make their results more socially useful. Instead we worship them as gods to be feared, and whose results we have to supinely accept.

  2. This didn’t wind me up as much as the first paragraph promised ;-)

    At the risk of falling into a modified Godwin Law trap: isn’t what you heading towards largely what the Communists repeatedly tried and failed to achieve? That’s to say making a spirited effort to ensure everyone was equal but finding that an elite managed to float to the top anyway and everyone was worse off because if you were all going to end up with equal reward, why strive to achieve.

    I did write a little about income regulation and reward a few weeks ago:

    • I apologise for not having delivered the level of winding-up that I promised at the beginning! :D

      Yes, we must be very careful about Godwin with all this talk of cleansing and final solutions! I am certainly not suggesting that bureaucracy replace markets. But I am suggesting that it is the politician’s task to think creatively about those whom the market fails, and rather less about protecting those whom the market favours.

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