News and Comment

Whose fairness is it anyway?

Thursday 25 November 2010

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Fairness is a word tripping off politicians’ tongues at the moment. It’s one of those words that can be embraced on all sides – everyone likes fairness and dislikes unfairness, just as everyone likes good food rather than bad food. It’s a given. But just as one person’s idea of good food might be different to someone else’s, that which is eminently fair in the eyes of one person will be utterly unfair in the eyes of another.

We would all agree that everyone in society should be given ‘a fair chance’, but there is much disagreement over what that entails. When it comes to state support for those in the most need, for example, is it fair that healthy, hard-working people should help fund the support received by those who, in spite of medical advice, choose to maintain unhealthy lifestyles? Or, equally, is it fair that more affluent, articulate people should enjoy better health and life expectancy than poorer people whose lives are, for what ever reason, much more challenging?

One of the problems is that our sense of what constitutes fairness often implies a moral judgement.  This was highlighted when the prime minister said recently in a speech that fairness was about ‘giving people what they deserve – and what they deserve depends on how they behave’. For many, this was all too evocative of Victorian moralising on the deserving and undeserving poor. Who decides when someone deserves? Some would argue it shouldn’t be the state’s job to make such judgements – it should simply support people according to the situation they find themselves in. Others would argue that it’s precisely the state’s job to make those judgements as it’s in society’s interests that people behave in a way that does not harm, inconvenience or burden their neighbours.

All this matters so much at the moment because public services are going to need robust rationales for making the spending cuts that they do. Fairness offers to provide that rationale, and proves the government’s assertion that ‘we’re all in this together’. Withdrawing currently universal benefits from better-off families, both at national and local government level, will look unfair to some – because it takes away from some sections of society but not all. Equally, it will appear fair to others – because it moves resources away from those who start from a position of advantage, and so aims to narrow the gap in outcomes experienced by richer and poorer.

That ‘fairness’ is so malleable as a concept will mean that politicians on all sides will be able to claim that it sits at the heart of their different policies and approaches in the challenging times ahead. For those of us trying to really unpick what the cuts will mean and thus mitigate their worst effects arguments about fairness – rooted in ideology and contested as they are – can only take us so far.