Is life fair, and will a fairness commission change things if it isn’t?

By - Friday 19th June, 2015

Robert Ward isn’t sure, but thinks that the answer to both questions is ‘no’

Last week saw the London Fairness Commission (‘LFC’) join the Croydon Fairness Commission (‘CFC’) in the fairness firmament. It’s getting crowded up there.

Now if there is one word that takes us through the looking glass it is ‘fairness’. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice during her adventures in Wonderland, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. Fairness is a Humpty Dumpty word.

The CFC is taking the Humpty Dumpty line on fairness. To its credit, the LFC is starting from the question of what fairness is; planning only later to move on to questions of whether London is fair. Their virtuous line is somewhat devalued by the associated text strongly implying that the answer to the second question must be no, presumably under any definition.

There are several brands of fairness

What constitutes ‘fair’ is certainly a tough question. Especially so since fair is used to mislead, even more than ‘decent’ and ‘affordable’ of which I have previously written. At least a definition of ‘decent’ and ‘affordable’ can be found in government literature.

The root of the fairness definition problem is that not only can the word be used to describe several different concepts but worse, these concepts can be at odds with each other. If I have six pairs of shoes and you have two, is that fair? Shouldn’t we have four each, even though I paid for six, whereas you only bought two? But if fair is four pairs each, then what about the three shirts that you have whilst I only have one? You chose to buy shirts, whereas I preferred shoes. But if you work in an office and I am a beach lifeguard, shouldn’t you have all my shoes as I have little use for them?

I can recognise several brands of fairness here – proportionality (I keep the six that I paid for, you keep your two); outcome (four each) and need (you get all the shoes). There are other brands too – libertarian fairness might be that it’s none of your business how many shoes and shirts I have. Or redistribution fairness, I won’t miss one pair of shoes so the government should take one pair from me to give you an extra pair?

‘Fairness’ can be used to give an aura of virtue to a political statement

This very ambiguity is what makes it attractive to politicians and those with a political point to make. But the usage of fairness that is really insidious is when it is used to give an aura of virtue to both a political statement and the person expressing it. “I believe in a fairer society, and so…” is an example. How can you possibly argue with ‘virtuous me and my pet theory’? The worst of the reports of previous fairness commissions are riddled with these.

A fairness that carries little negative baggage is equality of opportunity, which the CFC have given an elevated profile. Education and health are the foundations on which a successful and fulfilling life are built. Great strides have been made in both, but my observation is that little has changed in the next great block to the success of the talented, hard working but disadvantaged – the inherent cronyism at every level in our society that constrains opportunity.

Doing something about it is much harder than for the other two because it goes to the core of who we are as humans. My great grandfather was a journeyman tailor. He acquired a trade, unlike the rest of my mostly agricultural labour ancestors, because his father was a tailor, and his father before him. He had the opportunity that others did not.

Is it okay for a plumber to teach his son to be a plumber, but not okay for an investment banker to do the same?

Most would argue that passing skills from father to son is praiseworthy. But had my great-great grandfather been a stockbroker would it still have been ok? And what about moving these examples forward to today? Is it okay for a plumber to teach his son to be a plumber, but not okay for an investment banker to do the same?

Taking this away from the ties of blood to the ties of friendship, if he is looking for someone to help out on a big project, the plumber will look to the electrician he knows from school, the investment banker to the lawyer he met at Eton. Or the parent looking to give their child the best start in life will call up their old friend who might help. This is how David Cameron and both Milibands secured an initial leg up the ladder.

Is all of this fair? Probably not. Is it human? Most definitely. But what to do?

This is where a fairness commission may help. But it may not. Statistics of who has the most shoes may lead to a discussion on how to take shoes from the well shod, in which case it fails. But if it leads to more routes by which the hard-working, talented disadvantaged can have as many shoes or shirts as they please, then the world will have moved forward.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    Fairness is when people who work hard are paid more than those who can’t be bothered. Unfairness is when they are all paid the same. Fairness is when each person can decide what they spend their money on. If they want lots of shoes, that’s fine. If they would rather pay for private healthcare instead, but buy clothes from charity shops and have one holiday a year, that is also fine. If they decide to do without holidays, but hire builders to do up their homes, that is also fine. If they want to have children, that is O.K., but if they would rather not, that is O.K. as well. If having children costs more, then that is entirely up to them. Life is all about choices.