Whatever happened to fairness?

Healing our broken society is an uphill task. Yet the obvious first step will be to demonstrate that - insofar as the law is concerned - ‘we are all in this together’, the top and the bottom alike.

Is justice truly objective?
Patricia Kaszynska
On 31 October 2011 14:10

Autumn is a cruel season - it prompts reflections. This year, looking back at what happened to fairness induces a lot of nostalgia.

The ‘riotous’ summer raised suspicions that ‘we are not all in this together’; the Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy London Stock Exchange movements have solidified the sense of the growing - and unfair - discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots.

These developments have been registered on the level of political rhetoric with the word ‘fairness’ increasingly perceived as toxic.

In the eyes of most observers, the party conference season this year ended with a whimper, not a bang. Many commentators reflected on the muted character of this year’s rallies; some remarked on the slight undertones of decadence.

Very few however remarked on a profound and telling shift in the political rhetoric: this year, the term ‘fairness’ was perceptible by its absence in party conference halls. 

In last year’s speech, the prime minister claimed that it was time ‘for a new conversation about what fairness really means’. Indeed, once upon a time ‘fairness’ was the word of the day.

‘A Future Fair for All’ was the slogan of the Labour election campaign; ‘fairness’ was a ‘simple’ word on which the Lib Dem manifesto was ‘built’; the coalition government made ‘fairness’ part of their everyday mantra with George Osborne’s ‘tough but fair’ cuts, Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘fair’ welfare reform, ‘fair’ university fees, ‘fair’ child benefit cap, all echoed in the coalition's policy programme ‘Freedom Fairness Responsibility’.

This year, an isolated appeal to fairness - Vince Cable’s promise of ‘fairness and recovery’ with which he finished his speech - sounded like an epitaph for once a meaningful word. 

Polly Toynbee has suggested that ‘the problem is not his words, but the lack of substance behind them – neither "fairness" nor "recovery".’ There has been much speculation about the economic recovery - what happened to fairness remains more of a mystery.

When people talk about fairness they can mean two different things: fairness in the procedure that allocates resources; or fairness in the distribution thereof.

The first captures the sense of the transparency and legitimacy of the process by which decisions are made; the latter describes the egalitarian allocation of goods in society according to the principle of social justice.

It is the procedural sense of fairness that is most pronounced in everyday attitudes.

Perhaps an unexpected finding of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation investigation into the underlying 'drivers' of public attitudes towards economic inequality is that many believe that inequality can be justified and that differences in income are perfectly legitimate insofar as they reflect differences in levels of ability, performance or social contribution.

Indeed, the common understanding of fairness is framed in terms of desert and reward for effort and contribution, rather than in terms of distributive equality.

This sense of procedural fairness – the belief that one gets what one deserves - has been shattered in recent months.

The MPs’ expenses scandal, the debacle over bankers’ bonuses, and most recently the revelations about Liam Fox’s violation of the ministerial code – all have collectively contributed to a daunting sense that playing by the rules does not pay back.

Arguably, this process has its origin in the aggressive means-testing of benefits when, as John Denham pointed out, ‘the wholesale move away from support for earned entitlement gradually eroded the sense that playing to the rules was rewarded.’

Regardless of the origin, the cumulative end result was the revelation that the law applying to the top is not the same as the law applying to the bottom. And it was this revelation that found its expression in the riotous behaviour.

During the riots, paradoxically, the poor emulated the behaviour of the rich in that they refused to play by the rules.

In this sense, as Phillip Blond pointed out, ‘the top and bottom of British society seem to exhibit quite similar values — both play the system, and both see no reason why they should not. They represent the final triumph of a value system that does not recognize any objective values at all’.

The riots brought the top and the bottom in contact in yet another sense. Once again, an interesting thing about the findings of the JR report is that ‘people are interpreting the income gap as that between the very top and the middle, rather than between 'rich' and 'poor' as conventionally understood’.

The riots brought to light the ‘feral’ bottom in all its glory. Now, it would be wrong to suggest that, by drawing attention to its existence, the bottom won empathy, or even an acknowledgement from the middle – far from it, as the antagonising choice of language indicated, the respectable middle was only reinforced in its sense of distinctness from the ‘sickened’, ‘feral’ , ‘sub-human’ underclass.

Still, on a more abstract level some perhaps reflected on how little one has to have in order to feel one has nothing to lose whatsoever.

More than anything, the riots aggravated the anxiety of the middle about being squeezed further, falling through the cracks and joining the barbarous underprivileged.

To that extent, the riots brought to the level of public visibility the repressed – the growing chasm between the very rich and the rest. In the aftermath, some started to pose uncomfortable questions.

Is it really acceptable that over the last thirty years the share of the bottom half has fallen by a quarter, at the same time as the share going to the top 1% of earners increased by half.

Can it be explained in terms of just desert that the share of liquid wealth enjoyed by the richest 10% rose from 57% in 1997 to 71% in 2003; leaving the bottom 50% of the population with the mere 1%?

By means of what kind of procedure could this difference be considered fair? Very few members of the public would endorse strict egalitarianism when it comes to personal wealth. Moreover, the majority accept differences in the level of personal income insofar as they perceive them as fair.

But at the time of the riots many came to question whether the inequity on the current scale can be justified: many came to realise that the rewards have not been proportional to the level of effort; and many came to believe that there was no point in aspiring to play by the rules given how disadvantaged, deprived and destitute their position was – they were the underclass and they were doomed to stay that way.     

Winter sleep is conducive to healing. Over the next few months, rather than poking at the wounds, we should reflect on how the broken society can heal.

This is a difficult question; yet the obvious first step will be to demonstrate that - insofar as the law is concerned - ‘we are all in this together’, the top and the bottom alike.

Dr Patricia Kaszynska is a Senior Researcher for ResPublica.

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