Opinion: Defining fairness

‘Fairness’ is a word often used by Liberal Democrats – but how do we define the term? Virtually everyone in politics says ‘our policies are fair, or fairer,’ but there are many different conceptions and definitions thereof; the concept of fairness to a Tory may be very different to that used by a socialist or a liberal. Even amongst liberals, there is a debate to be had.

Delivering last week’s Hugo Young memorial lecture, Nick Clegg made it clear that he thought, “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality.” and that he wished to see a “shift, from a static, income-based definition of fairness to an approach focused on mobility and life chances.”

We at the Social Liberal Forum take a different view.

Social mobility is of course important, but incomes matter too. The same goes for inequality. Poverty causes suffering. The gap between rich and poor causes misery, social tension and intolerable inequalities of political influence. There should not be a focus on one to the exclusion of others.

In our view, making society fairer means dramatically reducing poverty, reducing the gap between rich and poor and ensuring people can rise (and fall) through the income hierarchy regardless of their starting point. All three components – poverty reduction, reducing inequality and increasing social mobility – are complementary and necessary.

Our disagreement is not just an idle philosophical tiff. Whilst agreeing with much of what Nick says, we fear that some of his pronouncements are not only at odds with Liberal Democrat values and democratically agreed policies – but may have profound consequences for government decisions. We have written to Nick to set out our position – and our letter forms the basis of this article.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution states that we aim to create a society, “in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” When we say “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty,” we should mean exactly that: no-one – and if we presume social mobility to mean that people can fall as well as rise, then increasing social mobility does not prevent people from being enslaved by poverty.

Take a hypothetical society where the number of people from poor backgrounds who attend Oxbridge is proportional to their number in the population, or where a child from a poor background has the same chance of getting a well-paid job as a child from a rich background.

Even in this hypothetical socially mobile world, it is still the case that some people are losing out; some people will still not get into the best universities or obtain the best jobs; someone will still be at the bottom of the scale. What is crucial is not to let them be cut adrift, or fall into the indignity of poverty.

Social mobility does not, on its own, eliminate poverty; it merely changes who is in it.

For a whole range of reasons, people fall upon financially hard times, often through no fault of their own – compulsory redundancies, ill health, the birth of a child. Occasionally, people’s own actions may contribute; substance abuse for example, or simple lack of the right talents or temperament to succeed in the market place. However, our constitution rightly leaves us with no get out – whatever the reason people are at the bottom of the pile, we will not condemn them to poverty. Our constitution does not distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor – we recognise that poverty causes suffering and is a problem in its own right. Although we agree that hard work should be rewarded, there should be a basic level of entitlement for all, as a human right.

A well-designed welfare state can promote social mobility and ensure that everyone is provided with a decent life, free from poverty. It doesn’t have to be a choice; progressives have, in our memory, always argued for both – and so should that continue.

This is why we support, in principle, the Coalition’s policy for a ‘universal credit’ – although we recognise the devil will be in the detail. If properly designed, the policy will give proper protection to those out of work and provide a humane incentive to get back into work. Again, if properly designed, it will help insure against poverty and encourage social mobility.

A renewed focus on social mobility – to the detriment of the reduction of poverty and/or inequality – appears to be driving much of the Coalition’s agenda, particularly changes to Housing Benefit. Although arguments have been made that the reforms may assist social mobility through diminishing poverty traps, they will almost certainly exacerbate overcrowding, homelessness and poverty. These things are all bad in their own right – they may even undermine the goal of social mobility. Children will find it more difficult to succeed if they have to grow up and study in a cramped and potentially stressful environment.

In his lecture, Nick was right to criticise the last Government’s poverty reduction strategy, with its seemingly undue focus on raising people who were slightly below the poverty line to a point that was slightly above it. This is probably why Nick took it upon himself to say that fairness was not “poverty plus a pound”. In part, we share Nick’s criticism, if only because Labour’s strategy lacked the ambition to help the very worst off, or help lift people even higher. However, we also must point out that poverty plus a pound would certainly be helpful to someone substantially below the poverty threshold – whether they found themselves there from birth, or whether they fell to that point from a great height.

We also agree with Nick when he draws attention to the importance of public services in promoting life chances, but we have to question Coalition policies, given that importance.

We accept that efforts have been made to protect health, education and, indeed, international development budgets. However, spending on schools and hospitals alone won’t improve education or health if the students and patients using those services don’t have access to decent housing, jobs or food.

Adequate housing matters, but the social housing budget is being cut. Affordable public transport helps people on low incomes get to and from their job – but subsidies are being cut and prices set to rise. The Education Maintenance Allowance helps young people stay in post-16 education, but that is being abolished.

Leaving aside poverty, Nick also unambiguously dismisses the notion that inequality matters in and of itself. He stated that, “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality.” and that “Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation.”

We cannot agree. Inequality matters, and not just when it is fixed.

There was a point when Nick agreed with us. Before the election he wrote to the Equality Trust, pledging that that he agreed with a ‘fairness test’ whereby that policies would be judged in terms of their effect on inequality (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/fairnesstest) – this requirement has now been discarded by the Coalition. Crucially, at both the Special Conference in May and at our annual Conference in September, the party agreed that Liberal Democrats will, over the course of this Parliament, work to reduce the gap between rich and poor. We need to reinstate the centrality of reducing inequality to the Coalition’s policy platform.

Evidence shows that socio-economic inequality matters for people’s outcomes and is a factor in preventing the very social mobility that Nick – and we – wish to promote. There is convincing data showing that unequal societies are less happy, have greater incidence of mental illness, violence and drug use. This cannot be addressed by social mobility; it reflects the strain inequality puts on the whole of society.

Inequality also hampers social mobility, as those with money have access to the means to create more money enhancing their advantage over time – precisely the concentration of power that liberals stand firmly against.

As a party, we should recognise that both poverty reduction and closing the gap between rich and poor are important in and of themselves – in a way that is at least as important as promoting social mobility. We should also note that those countries with the highest levels of social mobility, lowest levels of poverty and most equal distribution of income, tend to be the countries where the State takes an active role to generously fund public services, redistribute income and actively help people find jobs.

To end, we will state our view again. We believe that society is fairer when absolute poverty is eliminated, the gap between rich and poor is reduced and where people can rise (and fall) through the income hierarchy regardless of their starting point. The latter is just one part of the canvas. Fairness, for liberals, should mean ceaselessly working towards the whole picture.

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33 Comments

  • Too right.

    Social mobility and “equality of opportunity” matter, but they are only part of the picture.

    What really matters is creating a society where the people at the bottom have a decent standard of living, the gap between the top and the bottom is small enough that the journey is feasible, and also that the rich never think they are not part of the same society as the rest of us.

    Then we really all would be “in it together”.

  • I agree in general with the basis of this article, that Nick Clegg is taking the Liberal Democrats in a fundamentally wrong direction if he starts to neglect people’s levels of income as a measure of poverty in favour of equality of opportunity. This is a dangerous path for him to start to take and he should be told in no uncertain terms that it is simply an unacceptable viewpoint within the framework of our party’s principles. It is right to point out that Labour has trapped many people within a dependency culture. However, we need to give people not just an aspirational ladder out of poverty, but also a decent safety net below this should they fall off it.

    The big problem I see is not so much material poverty i.e. access to the means to live and get ahead in life i.e. education, but cultural poverty. It is cultural poverty that means people are unable to make use of the educational opportunities they are offered as well as making destructive lifestyle choices like having multiple children by different partners and neglecting their health. Before anyone jumps down my throat on this one, many immigrant groups have managed to arrive here poor and have quickly improved their standard of living simply because as part of their culture they value learning and education for themselves and their children above all else. So why can’t many indigenous British people do the same?

    To me, how we can change cultural attitudes to ensure that people actually grasp the opportunities that are already available seems just as important an objective as making those opportunities freely available to all in the first place. We need a massive shift in cultural norms, away from a situation where X Factor is the sum total of people’s aspirations and children who study hard are bullied at school, if necessary using saturation advertising campaigns to promote the virtues of education and shift the UK away from its current anti-learning popular culture. Rather than requiring unemployed people to do menial work, would it not be better for them to have a compulsory learning assessment and require them to fill any educational gaps they may have in terms of good English and maths, to make them more employable?

  • mike cobley 1st Dec '10 - 11:05am

    I think that the words ‘fair’ and ‘fairness’ are actually red herrings, and focussing on definitions and wrangling over them is a misuse of our time and energy. Its comparable to debating what is the Good, or the Beautiful, terms which are open to interpretation depending on various factors including basic aesthetics. But if we were to refocus our attention on the things in society that are unfair, I think we’d find a lot more common ground and agreement. From a rational point of view, we should be pursuing the ‘minimise avoidable suffering’ principle, not burbling on about fairness; trying to define fair is like wrestling fog.

  • Oooh lots of big words used in this thread! My head is begining to hurt.

    Maybe I can help.

    My Dictionary from Poundland give this definition for fairness :-

    The state of being fair, or free form spots or stains, honesty, as of dealing; candor, as of an argument.

    Oh dear no wonder he wants to re-define it.

    (The term PLEDGE has been copyrighted by Clegg & Co. Proper use of this word is strictly prohibited. Use of this word does not have any binding contractual obligation. Any damage caused to your reputation by the use of this word is not the responsibility of Clegg & Co. This does effect your statutory rights.)

  • Liberal Neil 1st Dec '10 - 12:24pm

    I agree with the gist of the article.

    The key point is that while the authros and nick appear to agre that social mobility is a key aim for liberals, the authors rightly point out that a prerequisite for social mobility to take place is that the gap is not too wide to start with.

    The available evidence supports them in this.

    I wonder if Nick can point to any examples to show that they are wrong?

  • James Mills 1st Dec '10 - 12:37pm

    What really puts me off you SLF lot is how you always speak in the royal “we”. Even your press statements are completely in the third person. Talk about groupthink!

  • Liberal Neil 1st Dec '10 - 1:02pm

    @James Mills – Using ‘we’ is not writing in the third person. That would be using ‘he’ or ‘she’.

    Anyway, I assume they have used ‘we’ because the article is written by two people.

  • David Allen 1st Dec '10 - 1:03pm

    “Inequality also hampers social mobility, as those with money have access to the means to create more money enhancing their advantage over time – precisely the concentration of power that liberals stand firmly against.”

    That’s the crucial point. We should never sit back, relax, and conclude that we have tamed social inequality. The reason is that there are strong forces struggling ceaselessly to aggregate and concentrate wealth and power. They now control our two largest parties, and have consequently been winning, for the last thirty years.

    Mandelson’s joke about being “intensely relaxed” about concentration of riches was a clever piece of irony. Of course, if you are intense, you are not relaxed. Mandelson was not relaxed, quite the reverse. His “relaxed” pose was adopted to cloak his intensity of purpose – to do everything he could to get the rich on Labour’s side, and to join their number in person.

    So, for a Lib Dem leader to take a relaxed attitude to inequality is not simply an arcane philosophical flaw. It is a betrayal of all we stand for.

  • A thoughtful piece.

    Nick Clegg’s shameless attempt to re-define fairness should be treated with contempt.

    He seeks to re-define it to serve the aims and the justify the objectives of the current Coalition government – which is the most right-wing since Thatcher. To speak in such self-serving and self-aggrandising terms purely to justify the decisions taken in the present discredits the Liberal Democrats – and will cause more support to leave if he continues to do spout this.

    To claim that fairness does not equate in any sense to income equality is patently absurd. Social mobility matters. But Clegg’s lecture gives the impression of a Thatcherite Tory justifying the withdrawl of the State – which is what he is aiming to do.

    Labour’s line of a ‘jobless recovery’ has resonance. It is perfectly worthy to create the conditions to allow social mobility. But without the jobs to go to or the exports to feed the growth (both conditions which the OBR is curiously neutral on) the inability of people to work matched by the withdrawal of welfare support will create social issues we cannot even begin to imagine.

    Unfortunately – it appears as if Nick Clegg only has one aim at present – and that is to use the Power of Argument (be it with Tuition Fees or this misplaced attempt to redefine fairness) to tell everyone who isn’t with the Coalition that they’re just plain wrong.

  • Simon Titley 1st Dec '10 - 3:19pm

    The problem with Nick Clegg’s concept of ‘equality of opportunity’ is that he seems to regard it as some sort of giant catapult. All you have to do it fit stronger elastic, pull it back further and thus propel disadvantaged people higher into the air.

    There is no recognition in this view that social advantages and disadvantages are a continuous process, and that the wealthier and more successful people benefit from continuous support, not just a good start in life.

  • Andrew Duffield 1st Dec '10 - 5:21pm

    It’s NOT inequality of income that should matter to Liberals – it’s inequality of WEALTH. There is a vital and fundamental difference.

  • It now makes sense why Clegg is at home in this government. The old Tories believed in old money, old ways of life, an ordered hierarchical society. Thatcher did not, her successors even less. The current Tories are not really ‘conservatives’ – they simply accept high income and high wealth as a symbol of success in the market, and value that above all else. Clegg’s comments show that this is his definition of a fair society. This coalition will last.

  • James Mills – why do you form organisations based on a set of principles, values etc, if you can’t say “we think…” If your concept of liberalism is that you can think what you like and express as your principles this that or the other, without reference to any umbrella principles, you are not in the same party I belong to! Surely, you would define yourself as “independent”, “freethinker”, “libertarian” or some such if you wanted that degree of latitude.

    Adam Bell – even slaves had some (if very difficult) routes out of poverty. Surely what is being said here is that it is difficult to change your circumstances, and “we” as Lib Dems wish to create a society where that is no longer the case, both through social mobility and by measures to make people more equal (through income and wealth measures – Dane please take note!)

    In my view it means specifically rejecting Thatcherite notions of “greed is good” and the politer Blairite “aspirational society”. In that sense, I think Clegg and our economic right (perhaps that includes you, Adam?) have gone along with Blair in accepting the “post – Thatcher consensus”. Remember our preamble was written when Thatcherism was in its pomp, and many things were written to define ourselves against that.

  • A fair society is not characterised by social mobility.

    First what does social mobility mean? Most seem to be talking about changing ones class position which would beg the question of whether a class ridden society could be declared fair. The mobility in question and the determination that it is lacking at present only seems to focus on movement between bottom and top, ignoring the myriad small movements in between and the changing value we place on different occupations. For example, nursing has moved from a working class occupation firmly into the middle classes over the last decade whilst over a longer period branch bank managers have sunk from the professional classes into the skilled middle. Upward and downward mobility has been achieved without having to move occupation. This form of social mobility could be said to represent fairness. This is not the kind of social mobility that has been referred to anywhere though. The kind of social mobility Clegg and most other commentators refer to is in fact social climbing.

    To say that a fair society is one that does not impede an individuals desire to socially climb is true. To say that an individual should not inherit their social position could also be considered fair. This is to say that social mobility is essentially a private desire. To say that a fair society is characterised by such social mobility is then obviously false. To recognise that this particular individual desire is common and have impediments to it removed would be one characteristic of a fair society but not its character. To say that it would be the character is to relegate the far more common human desire to be settled and contented with ones secure and sufficient lot as an unworthy desire. This elevation of social mobility as the mark of fair society is in fact simple snobbery. To say that government should act to promote it is to say that this desire to socially climb is the desire we wish to encourage in our citizens. What business is it of government to engage in such social engineering that it wishes to promote the particular individual desires of the social climber?

    Social mobility will occur to exactly its fair and just level when society is fair in its distribution of social goods to the extent that each individual is capable of achieving full autonomous agency and all impediments to mobillity are removed. It is an individual private desire and is therefore no more the business of government to promote it and no more the chracteristic of a good society than imposing an individual desire to own a Prada handbag would be.

    Adam Bell,

    I wonder if you could answer a few questions about the following:

    “You lose your dignity if your capability of getting yourself out of poverty is entirely abdicated in favour of the Government doing it for you, which is the Labour method. Government support to an individual’s choices can enhance their dignity and their scope for getting themselves out of poverty, but a commitment to equality regardless of the way in which it’s achieved is to tell a significant portion of the population that since they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps you’re going to do it for them. I suggest you ask yourself what dignity is left to them once you do that.”

    This Labour method you speak of, could you illustrate with a policy or two from the history of their record in government? If government is supporting an individual’s choices in what way is this different from government doing it for you? What form of equality can be achieved “regardless”? If I assume you are referring to absolutely equal incomes, does anyone ever propose that? If so who and where? What bootstraps are available to those working long hours for minimum pay? If no bootstraps are available would it be undignified for government to help through, say, a minimum wage?

    Prateek Buch,

    “there is indeed very little dignity in ‘being lifted out of poverty,’ not least if after the lift you remain unskilled, unhealthy and incapable of following your own self-determined goals”.

    There is very little dignity in being dragged breathless from a surging river with your trousers round your ankles either, I don’t get your point. Are you not arguing that absolute poverty should be eliminated? If so you will always be open to the charge that you are proposing to ‘lift’ people out of poverty. The amount of money that people have in a free market is directly proportional to the amount of power they have in that market place. The several million people we have relgated to the side lines as a pool of flexibly available labour for the past three decades have no power nor do the millions working at unskilled jobs just above them in the social mobility chain. Society should not require these people to take mass action in order to recieve a living wage. Any society that decides to ensure a sufficient wage for people who do not have the power to get it for themselves will be accused of the undignified “lifting” of people out of poverty. It is an argument for the sophists, leave them to it and don’t be shifted from your just path.

  • Simon Hebditch 2nd Dec '10 - 12:35pm

    The article on “fairness” and social mobility is very welcome. Even more importantly, there has been a thoughtful set of responses to the original material. Nick Clegg is running into dangerous territory in terms if Lib Dem party values and is showing, frankly, that the Coalition was not an uncomfortable necessity but the beginning of a meeting of minds between the Cameroonians and parts of the Lib Dem leadership. John Gray had an excellent leading essay in the London Review of Books (21 October) showing that the political values and objectives of both the PM and DPM were closely aligned.

    The farce playing out now on the tuition fees vote illustrates the ludicrous position in which the Lib Dem parliamentary party finds itself. If we are also going to witness a wholesale re-writing of Lib Dem principles and policy objectives, then we are in danger of being seen as opportunistic and shallow. Why should the electorate trust us again?

  • Adam – I think that allowing people more disposable income will obviously help rebalance inequality. In general terms, a more progressive sliding scale income tax will both encourage more mobility and produce more equal outcomes. I think as in all tax matters, the mix of different taxes is important. I don’t know enough about ths subject to give you my optimal answer.

  • Paul Kennedy 2nd Dec '10 - 3:39pm

    I agree with the thrust of this article, and in particular that inequality matters and needs tackling, but we need to be careful not to define fairness too narrowly. To me, fairness and freedom both require procedures and outcomes which are rational (eg need/incentive-based), objective, proportionate, practical, and transparent.

    This might mean for example:
    (1) universal not means-tested benefits to cover basic assessed needs (education, housing, security, health/disability care), funded by
    (2) taxes/levies which are proportionate to ability to pay and/or use of resources beyond basic needs without creating perverse incentives, supported by
    (3) opportunities for all, regardless of background and wealth.

    By definition inequality is not proportionate, particularly if it can cause problems for (3), but it can be tackled in a proportionate way by (1) and (2).

    What fairness doesn’t mean is arbitrary and disproportionate “nudges”, anomalies (such as a penal tax rate on mansions worth more than £2m which can easily be avoided by dividing in half), penalties, restricted practices and nepotism, benefit/credit cut-offs and means-testing (eg for housing, pensions, disability and child benefit), full pensions at 66 but nothing at 65, all-or-nothing voting systems such as first-past-the-post, or suddenly failing to deliver legitimate expectations.

    Nor does fairness mean postcode lotteries such as making a graduate who lives south of the River Tweed pay £36,000 plus interest (or alternatively a 9% supertax) more for a 4-year course than a graduate who lives just north of it, or than a graduate who took their degree a few years earlier, or than a graduate whose parents have stopped work so their child can qualify for a means-tested bursary.

  • Adam Bell,

    I make the point that social mobility is by definition a desire. That is far from claiming to know the desires of individuals. The notion that policy should selectively promote certain desires, social mobility being one of them, was precisely what I was arguing against.

    The minimum wage does like you say remove the need for indiviudals to demonstrate that their labour is worth a higher value. This is an artifact of liberal capitalism. The reservoir of labour that is left idle by a pre-attached distribution of assets and wealth leaves those at the bottom of the market chain without the means to demonstrate the true value of their labour. Demonstation of such an ideal is rendered impossible. The removal of the minimum wage would not allow them to demonstrate this any more than its being left in place. It is an answer to a different question. That being: do we value individuals enough to allow them the dignity of a living wage whether or not our financial system gives them the dignity of work and the power to recieve a sufficient reward for it? The value of the work done is not relevant to the question. The reward is determined by suplusses of labour not the value of product. Your idealism sees starvation and homelessness as the price worth paying for the higher dignity of an impossible goal.

    Tax credits appear in your description to be a Labour policy that supports making work more valuable than the lack of it. This would seem at odds with your declaration that this is not the Labour method. Cack-handed maybe but not the forced lifting by the bootstraps you wish to decry. The use of tax credits or the universal benefits I grant you is a goverment policy that would enable social mobility. It is the presence of paying work that would promote it. this is though a method of lessening the impact of removing the pre-existing government assistance. This is enablement once lifted. As it is the lifting that you object to I think your example fails to show where this happens unless you mean to object to the pre-existing benefits. If so then their absence would render the use of tax credits irrelevant.

    I find you third point confusing. Policies focussed purely on redistribution have always been argued as being that people should recieve the full fruits of their labour and that real choice is dependent on sufficient income. You argue that unless each individual can independently demonstrate their desert of the full fruits of their labour then they have no right to them. These policies of redistribution are proposed as a method of undoing the inherent injustices of the market system in order to allow true freedom of choice. I think it would be very hard to find any labour party supporter or any socialist arguing that it is not the right to true equality of opportunity and true freedom of choice that underpins the argument to end destitution through redistribution.

    You are wrong to assume that the absence of bootstraps refers to areas of structural unemployment. It also refers to all of those who labour in occupations where there is no possibility of gaining sufficient market power to enable fair negotiation of reward. Part of this incapacity is that there are always plenty of available replacements to take on their work. This is the desired effect of maintaining a pool of unemployed flexibly available labourers. This is the inevitable end point for most people in a liberal capitalist system. Liberal egalitarianism cannot provide justice within a capitalist market for those people without an accompanying redistribution of income and power.

    Prateek Buch,

    Point taken but is that to say that the losers that have been created up until now will have to wait until your ideal society is made manifest or are we allowed to keep a roof over their heads until then in the “Labour Way”.

  • David Hall-Matthews 3rd Dec '10 - 2:01pm

    Thanks all for such an excellent debate. Many useful points have been raised. I am Chair of the current Policy Working Group on Inequality (of which Prateek is also a member) – this will give us plenty to think about.

    @ Dane Clouston and Andrew Duffield – I entirely agree. There is a very long Liberal tradition in favour of inherited wealth redistribution. Unequal inheritance is a more obvious cause and maintainer of inequality than income disparities – and taxing it more would be more progressive. However, we should not underestimate how radical a step that would be – and of course any policy that would really work to reduce inequality will attract opposition from the priveleged, among others.

    @ Adam Bell – we agree about the importance of social mobility and capability to get oneself out of poverty. But if that is all that the state enables, then, by definition, nothing is done for those who for whatever reason are not socially mobile – or for those whose mobility is downwards. We think the state should take some responsibility to protect those in poverty – not necessarily to push them up the ladder, but to mitigate their position – i.e. to abolish absolute poverty. Poverty itself is an obstacle to social mobility in lots of ways. In an ideal (Liberal) society, there would be a great deal of social mobility AND those in the lowest economic positions would all be free from absolute poverty.

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