We’ll begin today with a story, which though unverifiable and quite possibly apocryphal nevertheless makes an important point.

Many years ago, a number of senior Conservatives met to discuss the Party’s ‘narrative’ – the essential message running through everything it said. The market research people reviewed their latest findings, recommending that the narrative should focus on fairness – because no other idea spoke so powerfully to the concerns of ordinary voters.

There was much agreement in the room – until, that is, one of those present (one of the very few whose opinion actually mattered) spoke up: "The Conservative Party isn’t really about fairness." Even in those far-off days, when men were men and Tories were Tories, this intervention caused some disquiet. "So what are we about, then?" asked an exasperated official (after the meeting and at a safe distance), "unfairness?"

Whether on the right or the left, fairness has become a central theme in contemporary politics. But might the contrarians be right? Is there a fundamental flaw in the politics of fairness? Writing for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki certainly thinks so – and cites the Eurozone crisis as a prime example:

  • "Rationally… this standoff should end with a compromise… But the catch is that Europe isn’t arguing just about what the most sensible economic policy is. It’s arguing about what is fair. German voters and politicians think it’s unfair to ask Germany to continue to foot the bill for countries that lived beyond their means… But Greek voters are equally certain that it’s unfair for them to suffer years of… high unemployment in order to repay foreign banks and richer northern neighbors, which have reaped outsized benefits from closer European integration." 

Surowiecki argues that "we care so much about fairness that we are often willing to sacrifice economic well-being to enforce it.":

  • "Behavioral economists have shown that a sizable percentage of people are willing to pay real money to punish people who are taking from a common pot but not contributing to it. Just to insure that shirkers get what they deserve, we are prepared to make ourselves poorer." 

Even worse, fairness is a notoriously subjective concept. As human beings, we tend to discount what pains other people, while exaggerating the importance of our own sensitivities – a phenomenon known as "self-serving bias".

In this respect, the 'politics of fairness' isn’t so very different from the 'politics of envy' – which should surely prompt conservatives to seek alternatives. For instance, there is the ‘politics of justice’, in which the rights and responsibilities of each participant are clearly understood – whether in the specific terms of a legal contract or the more general terms of a social contract. Then there is the ‘politics of service’, in which institutions are created and upheld so that people may freelly put the needs of others before their own.

Unfortunately, the Eurozone is about neither justice nor service – but self-service on a truly terrifying scale.