Fairness is the uniting theme of the Coalition. We hear it discussed everywhere. “Is it fair for the government to leave huge debts for our children to repay?” “Is it fair to leave environmental damage for our children to deal with?” “Is it fair for MPs who benefitted from free higher education to impose fees on today’s students?” “Is it fair for private equity managers to pay less tax than their cleaners?” “Is it fair for bankers to receive huge bonuses whilst policemen face pay freezes?”
But what does “fairness” mean? Much debate at the moment treats the term “fairness” as if we can make it mean whatever we want — politicians say: “Fairness to me is a matter of this or that.” But in fact philosophers, moralists, economists, and policymakers have thought for centuries about what fairness is, and indeed fairness concepts are already widely embedded in policy across a whole range of areas and debates. We don’t need to each have our own concept of fairness.
Policy Exchange has just published a paper I've written considering what fairness is and how it is applied in much policy and many debates. We haven’t sought to settle all those debates — some of them have progressed for decades; others for centuries. But they are debates about how to be fair — what fairness itself is can be stated fairly clearly.
Being fair is, I suggest, a form of being “proportionate” — a matter of proportionality. Equality and desert (getting what you deserve in proportion to your actions) are special cases of being proportionate in which fairness is particularly expressed.
It’s easy to see that one should not always be fair once one starts to think about it. Simple cases are where being completely fair isn’t worth it — it would take too much time, or be too invasive of privacy, or use up too many resources to be completely fair, so we settle for being fair enough. But more interesting are cases in which it is positively desirable to be unfair. Let’s focus on three.
First, it is desirable to be unfair once one has made a promise. If you’ve promised to do something for someone you oughtn’t to break your promise just because keeping it would involve your spending more time with the promise-holder than other people (being unequal), or because the promise-holder didn’t deserve to be treated any better than others. Philosophers might say that the promise ethically “trumps” the obligation to be fair.
Next, familial obligation also trumps fairness. You don’t buy your own children Christmas presents and not other children because your children deserve Christmas presents more. You do so because you have a familial obligation that comes ahead of your obligation to be fair.
Third, private property. If your money is really yours, you aren’t obliged to buy chocolate bars equally from all the corner shops in your area, or to buy them only from the most deserving corner shop.
So promises (or contracts – a contract is a special kind of promise), familial obligation, and private property all trump fairness. And that’s very important to recognise, because promise-keeping, familial obligation and private property have traditionally been seen as the three key building blocks of human society. One implication might be that any society will have a certain level of “basis” unfairness upon which government policy ought to be reluctant to encroach.
Although we should not always be fair, we usually should be. Specifically, if we have no good reason not to be fair, we ought to be fair. (Philosophers might say that fairness was the “residual” form of justice, meaning it’s what’s left over once everything else is removed.) And that obligation to be fair is reflected across all kinds of areas of policy.
Considerations of fairness enter into principles such as equal treatment before the law and whether there is a case for redistribution of income or wealth. Whether we are trying to impose fairness in specific cases or to change society in general makes a difference to how one thinks about equalities legislation. It turns out that it is always possible, for any number of people (even a whole society) to devise mechanisms whereby people themselves choose outcomes that they all consider fair, and these chosen outcomes will be considered (by everyone) to be fairer than any outcome that could be imposed by a central arbitrator. This is of potentially profound significance when considering whether government is better to act as arbitrator or facilitator of fairness.
The concept that policy changes and policy decisions should be proportionate is deeply embedded in European law. A similar concept has been reflected in English law since mediaeval times — indeed until the late 19th century there were separate “Equity” courts that existed precisely to address unfairness (disproportionality) that arose in legal decisions, and the principle still exists today. The concept of proportionality in taxation is widely accepted — particularly that tax should be proportionate to the ability to pay. Investment returns considered “fair” are those that are proportionate to the risks taken.
When thinking about benefits rules we worry deeply about what people deserve — surely the person that does what the system demands (e.g. getting a job) deserves to end up better off than those that simply don’t try and so stay on benefits? Doesn’t the mother that makes sacrifices for her children’s education deserve to have them get better opportunities as a consequence? Do people deserve to be punished for honest mistakes (e.g. at work) — say, the boss that makes a bad business decision being fired? Do Executives that are fired for poor performance deserve to receive “golden parachute” packages worth millions when they leave? What about bonuses?
We do not seek to resolve these many debates. But we do try to show how the concept of fairness — understood as proportionality, with particular application to equality and desert — is central to them. Our concept of fairness is concrete and usable. But when should one be fair and how? The answer to that, of course, is the heart of the current political debate.