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  • Why ‘fairness’ is important, but so is listening to the poor

    by Sunny
    12th April, 2010 at 11:00 am    

    The RSA chief Matthew Taylor says on his blog:

    The public is not particularly interested in equality as a policy goal but is much more exercised by what philosophers call ‘procedural justice’ – this is the idea of fairness in relation to the application of rules.

    So, if people are asked what is most unfair in society they are less likely to say poverty and exclusion and more to talk about illegal immigration and benefit cheating.

    I think that the concept of ‘fairness’ when approaching voter concerns is important. People seem generally more worried about what is ‘fair’ than what ‘is right’ in a way. I say this repeatedly on the issue of inequality - people are less worried about unequal distribution of wealth and more concerned by the thought that wealthy people may have acquired that wealth ‘unfairly’.

    In policy terms for the Left, that means if you want a more equal society then stop talking about ‘equality’ and start talking about ‘fairness’ in how people are rewarded for their work.

    But there’s a point I think Matthew Taylor misses out. It’s not that poverty and exclusion does not bother them. In fact, poor and excluded people are massively bothered by those issues. It’s just that the media pays little attention to them. So we think its not an important issue for many people.

    Take the Daily Mail’s coverage of immigration for example. The Mail constantly argues that poor people are hurt by immigration because it makes them poorer and decreases their quality of life. The evidence is patchy but let’s assume that is true.

    But will poor people benefit if immigration is banned entirely? They won’t because globalisation and poor workers’ rights is still a problem. People will still lose their job to Chinese workers across the world. They will still find their standard of living falling because there isn’t enough investment into public services. But the Daily Mail doesn’t call for more investment into services or the end of globalisation. That’s because it doesn’t care about poor people it simply wants to tell them that their problems are down to immigration.

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    1. Hannah Mudge

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    1. boyo — on 12th April, 2010 at 1:01 pm  

      Agreed. And actually I’ve just watched Gordon launch the manifesto (he was excellent, I thought) under the slogan for a fairer Britain.

      However, from a class perspective there’s some logic in immigration harming the poor - the common argument is that immigrants were sought because “the British” didn’t want the work. However, presumably if it had been remunerated properly, the work would have been more attractive.

      There’s tons of reasons for immigration in to the UK, but there’s quite a strong argument for it being part of a process, albeit largely unconscious on the part of the elite, to erode the power of the working class post-1945.

      The war had seen the near-Socialisation of the UK, 1945 the return of a radical government which nationalised anything that moved.

      Remember - they’ve voted Labour, the country will not stand for it?

      So what to do? For a start decrease bargaining power by increasing competition and erode collective-identity by introducing self-supporting cultures from outside. Finally, with Thatcher, smash the unions and promote a culture of individualism that, combined with multiculturalism on the left, would consign English Socialism (as Orwell would put it) to the grave.

    2. Arif — on 12th April, 2010 at 1:50 pm  

      I think this an interesting post. I think reducing justice to procedural justice implies that the structure of society is legitimised by the rule of law alone, and it is a fundamentally pro-status quo point of view, legitimising existing distributions of wealth, power and so on.

      I would argue that procedural justice defines the correct means to achieve the ends of substantive justice, and politics is necessarily about both. Constitutions try to define some aspects of procedural justice for all political parties, but normally they can also be amended.

      Without concern for substantive justice, a lot of politics is missing, in terms of defining a vision of a good society and differentiating it from others.

      And maybe it is always harder for a governing party to argue simultaneously that this has a vision and that the society they have governed for so long falls way short of it.

      If we take those visions out of political discussion, then at what level can/should they be developed and discussed?

    3. Tim Worstall — on 12th April, 2010 at 6:37 pm  

      I’m not sure that this emphasis on “fairness” is all that much of a surprise. It’s almost a defining preoccupation of the English (British if you prefer), the sense of “fair play”. It’s been remarked upon for centuries.

      As to wealth inequality, I just do wish that people would at least try to measure it properly.

    4. Sunny — on 12th April, 2010 at 7:09 pm  


    5. MaidMarian — on 12th April, 2010 at 7:39 pm  

      Sunny - I am always very dubious when there is talk of fairness. I am yet to hear a convincing definition of fairness. Thrown in motherhood and apple pie and there is a manifesto.

      ‘people are less worried about unequal distribution of wealth and more concerned by the thought that wealthy people may have acquired that wealth ‘unfairly’.’

      The problem is that it does not mean that they are right, or that there was anything per se untoward. The best example is the housing market, the right to buy was a profoundly unjust policy, yet it was democratic and those who proceeded to take the piss out of two generations did nothing untoward.

      Another example is localism. When a particular drug is available in one area but not in another, the allegation is of ‘unfairness’ but differences are not always and everywhere unfair.

      The philosophers always seemed to assume that when we stepped out from behind our Rawlsian veils of ignorance we would agree - one man’s fairness is in fact another man’s injustice.

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