Opinion: Redefining Fairness

Our political discourse has become increasingly dominated by insubstantial ‘buzzwords’ like ‘fairness’ and ‘progressive’ to the point where discussions about politics have begun to focus less on policy differences and more on how these words are to be used. Truly, British politics has entered an era in which the works of Wittgenstein are more relevant to the debate than any properly political philosopher or theorist.

This is perhaps exemplified by the debate within our party over the meaning of the word ‘fairness’. Prompted by Nick Clegg’s Hugo Young lecture, the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) recently wrote in an article here on LDV concerning this subject, and claimed that it means:

“…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.”

On this definition, fairness is a question of outcomes, rather than principle. It is a term subsidiary to the moral principles that dictate which outcomes are to count as good, and which assign values to the decisions made by individuals inasmuch as they move towards those outcomes.

I am going to argue that this definition is incorrect, that it speaks to an undeveloped concept of liberalism, and that adherence to it will result in our subsumption into a Labour Party moving inexorably rightwards. I will then sketch out a new definition of fairness that aims to avoid these consequences.

Before I do so, let me take you on a short intellectual journey; the path followed by the Labour Party since the formation of New Labour. New Labour is intimately identified withthe Third Way, the ideology espoused by Blair and Brown. Broadly, the thinking behind the Third Way is that the State can be a force for good, and is to be empowered to achieve moral goals, and is enabled to do so by the dynamism of the private sector, both in service provision and in the taxation of private enterprise. More bluntly, the social goals of the Labour Party are to be achieved by allowing the private sector to flourish and using its profits to fund the achievement of those goals. The moral justification for New Labour’s adherence to capitalism was given by the social goals it funded; the markets are moral inasmuch as they can be used to achieve the good.

It’s immediately clear that the ‘third way’ was not as much of a compromise between liberal capitalism and socialism as it may have been seen; rather, its focus was always on putting private enterprise at the service of the state. The end result is something of a bizarre moral doublethink: “We will give you freedom to produce in order that we might enslave your product”.

The financial crisis has revealed this doublethink in harsh relief, and given a new edge to Gordon Brown’s claim to have ended boom and bust. This should not be interpreted as an ironic stupidity, as is often the case, but rather as a moral requirement for the New Labour project. If markets are moral inasmuch as they provide the wherewithal to achieve social goals, then if they fail to provide that wherewithal they cease to be moral. This explains the very emotive and moralistic language used by many on the left about the banks – they must be ‘made to pay’ for their mistakes, which impacted on their moral duty to produce profits. The problem is that this language fails to understand the real nature of the doublethink involved in the Third Way – while profits were acquired to achieve social goals, those social goals themselves were as a consequence enslaved to the markets. When they failed, so did the chance of achieving the moral ends at which the Third Way aimed. This is why the key intellectual conceit of New Labour was that the State could prevent boom and bust, that State intervention could halt the business cycle.

The problem for the left is that the exposure of New Labour’s intellectual failure leaves them with little room for intellectual manoeuvre. We can chart the progression of more and more limited aspiration; from the Marxist notion of direct ownership of the means of production by the workers, through the state socialism and ownership of key industries by Labour in the 70s, and the socialisation of the products of the market by New Labour. With each step, the domain of conflated economic and moral values grows smaller and more limited, and the scope for achieving social goals decreases. This is the steady impact of economic reality on the socialist project, which was always about trying to achieve moral ends through economic means.

As a result, the only remaining intellectual space for Labour is to the right, and rightwards they will travel before they get back into government. We can already see the ground being laid for such a shift into the outskirts of a more liberal individualism; from the recommendations of the IPPR, the acceptance of group arrogance, to the work of Amartya Sen. However, the collectivist instincts of Labour will remain: Sen’s work points towards individuals as bundles of capabilities which can be enhanced by outside intervention, rather than individuals per se.

This, I claim, is the trap that the SLF’s definition of fairness falls into: by focusing on aggregate outcomes it ignores the actual choices made by the individuals that comprise those outcomes. Their definition of fairness is what Labour is moving towards; while an increase in Labour’s liberalism is to be welcomed, it can in no way compete with the real thing. Therefore, adherence to that definition would result in us becoming the appendage of Labour that many of its present members appear to believe us to be.

I want to sketch out a different definition of fairness, based on Fleischacker’s ‘A Third Concept of Liberty’. Fleischacker aims to demonstrate that there is an understanding of liberty, based on the works of Kant and Adam Smith, which falls between Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between the negative liberty of freedom from interference and the positive liberty of freedom to achieve goals. The former is the type of liberty espoused by right-wing libertarians and relies upon the simplistic notion of ‘revealed preferences’ as a guide to the choices of individuals. The latter is exemplified by the SLF’s definition of fairness above; an individual’s freedom to achieve particular outcomes is crucial.

Fleischacker argues that the two concepts given above are insufficient to cover the most crucial form of liberty, which constitutes one’s freedom to determine the principles by which one makes judgements. To unpack this notion, allow me to introduce you to a crucial part of Kant’s philosophy.

Kant, unlike his Germanic descendants Hegel and Heidegger, was very much a liberal. His essay ‘What is Enlightenment?‘ remains a classic of liberal thought. The key to understanding his work (and the concept of liberty that flows from it) is to understand the notion of a transcendental argument. An argument is transcendental if it concerns itself with the conditions for the possibility of that which is under discussion. To give an example, the conditions for the possibility of the nice cup of tea sitting on my desk are various and many, including the domestication of cattle, the cultivation of the tea plant and discovery of pottery. The beauty of a transcendental argument is that understanding the conditions for the possibility of thing gives us a deep understanding of its nature. It is the conditions for the possibility of choice, of judgement, with which Fleischacker is concerned, and hence the nature of liberty itself.

What do we do when we make a judgement? What do we do when we decide whether to go to the shops, pursue a burglar or decide who to vote for? The answer is that we particularise a principle or principles; we bring the situation in which we find ourselves under one or more concepts and act accordingly. Our choice of action is determined by the principles we select as appropriate to a situation. It may sound odd to hear that we consult our principles on whether we should go to the shops or not, but here ‘principle’ is used in the broader sense of ‘concept’; the formalisation – the rule-making – of our experiences. When deciding to go to the shops, you select appropriate concepts relevant to the situation that ‘I am hungry’. These concepts will include ‘Food is available at the shops’ and ‘Money is used to purchase goods at shops’ but will not include ‘Elephants are grey’. It is with the proper selection of concepts that judgement is concerned.

How does this proper selection come about? It comes about by the individual’s assessment of those concepts against experience and against their desires, ‘desires’ here to be understood as incorporating what some would call rational desires to e.g. be moral. It is this assessment, this ordering of concepts and principles, which is a condition for the possibility of judgement, and as a consequence it is the free engagement in this exercise that is a condition for the possibility of liberty. You cannot say that you’re free unless you’re free to determine the principles by which you make your decisions for yourself.

This immediately excludes the narrow concept of freedom promulgated by right-wing libertarians; their emphasis on the sanctity of property rights excludes concepts which do not incorporate it. Expressed preferences in themselves do not demonstrate that an individual is free to determine their own principles. It also excludes the concept of freedom on which the SLF’s definition of fairness is based, but in a far more subtle fashion.

The development of one’s own set of principles as a guide to action is dependent on testing those principles against the world. If you prevent someone from learning the consequences of the concepts under which they make their judgements, you’re actively preventing them from deciding how they’re going to live their life. The focus of SLF on outcomes for individuals seeks to shield individuals from the consequences of their choices, and so removes their freedom to determine their own principles.

Insulation from consequences insulates you from both success and failure. Without these cues, it is impossible to assess whether your concepts are accurate, whether your approach to conversation or to work produces the results you would want. Therefore, this concept of liberty requires us to do something which is currently so far from the political vogue that even raising it may appear scandalous: we need to rehabilitate failure. Failure is currently understood as something that we seemingly can’t allow anyone to suffer, and something that you should feel deeply ashamed to experience. This is wrong. Failure is glorious. Failure is how we determine which principles we should continue to apply and which we should discard. I have failed repeatedly in my life, and I expect to fail many more times in the future. Failure is the key to learning, and the bizarre arguments put forward by the left against, for instance, grammar schools – “We can’t allow children to think of themselves as failures at 11” – confuse the system with the individual. You don’t fail as a person when you don’t pass an exam, you only fail when you don’t apply that result to your principles.

However, it’s clear that not all failure is the result of bad judgement, and some will be the result of bad luck – which in itself is not useful. Breaking your leg accidentally, or developing a serious illness, are not learning experiences. The US healthcare system, which allows people to go bankrupt through healthcare costs, is clearly inimical to this concept of freedom. Similarly, so is poverty so extreme that you’re incapable of feeding yourself or affording shelter prevents you from developing judgement; the same applies to mental illness and physical disabilities. It’s also clear that avoiding the possibility of failure by virtue of the good fortune of having rich parents is in itself an impediment to the development of judgement.

We can therefore give a much tighter definition of fairness than that given by the SLF: a policy is fair if and only if it allows people to choose to fail while preventing people from failing by bad luck. This leads to a concept of the state as providing the conditions for the possibility of the development of judgement by its citizens, but withholding judgement itself as to what good judgement entails. ‘Good’ in this sense is up to the individual to decide for themselves, by checking their judgements against the world and against the responses of everyone else in the society in which they live.

Fleischacker does not gave a name to his concept of liberty, but in tribute to Kant I will call it Transcendental Liberalism. I hope to give a picture of what a society constructed in line with this philosophy would look like in a future post, but for now I hope you will give me the dignity of using the comments to point out where these ideas fail.

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19 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 4th Dec '10 - 5:43pm

    Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn at no other

    It’s not the only way to learn, and certainly not some special “key to learning”.

    (Nonetheless, the “right to fail” is important for all sorts of reasons, and you can’t be liberal without accepting the possibility of failure)

  • I don’t like these rather grandoise ideas about, ‘redefining,’ anything. Voters know, ‘fair,’ when they see it, and one voter may well have a different definition to another. This rather smacks of the Orange Book which, ‘reclaimed,’ liberalism and has left the party stuck with liberalism as the freedom to starve. There is no Rawlsian veil of ignorance.

    It is like this horrible word, ‘progressive.’ On a strict definition the HE Fee proposals are progressive, as was the abolition of the 10p tax band. It’s just that if people don’t see pooper people paying a relatively lower share as, ‘progressive,’ no amount of redefinitions will help. Similarly, the, ‘right to fail,’ is a seductive idea in the context of banks – many would agree. It’s just rather easy to talk about letting banks go under and facing the reality of that. Icelandic banks had the right to fail, and that didn’t end well.

  • Adam Gillett 4th Dec '10 - 8:27pm

    I think the distinction between ‘failure through luck’ and ‘failure through choice’ is tenuous. As a man once said, ‘there is no free will, but we must imagine it does for justice to exist’. If free will is our concept to manipulate, to what extent do we expand this freedom? If the pursuit of transcendental liberalism is to expand the capacity to decide our failures, does it not also seek to take concepts we presently consider exterior to free will (failure through luck) and place them in the realm of choice? But if you are arguing for the elimination of failure through luck, how can you simultaneously seek to expand failure through choice?

    Just a poser.

  • Adam Gillett 4th Dec '10 - 8:31pm

    *’must imagine there is’

    Deary me.

  • There is no point in these abstract notions of fairness and equality. Let’s look at this with plain common sense. Taking away money from one needy set of families to re-distribute to another set as is currently proposed is not fair. Removing the college EMA from 16-18 year olds and thus depriving many of them of the opportunity to progress beyond GCSE level is not fair. Asking people to leave their homes and communities after a two year tenancy is not fair. I could go on.

    There is nothing wrong with discussing and re-orientating our understanding of any issue. However to present an intellectual argument which lacks practical rigour in application would be a shame.

  • Mary, I agree. I would go further – Adam in presenting his ideas as he does, comes over as a student trying to juggle a lot of intellectual ideas, and applying them directly to the real world. We Britons are often accused of NOT taking intellectual ideas seriously enough and dismissing them as “impractical, idealistic, or some other damning with faint praise / criticism”. And this criticism has strength. But in order to use our deep philosophical heritage, we have to mediate it through real world experiences. To go from a theory where we try to minimise outside intervention to mitigate individual failure, to a government predicated on that concept (“principle”) is politics beyond the naive.

    The reason that politicians associsted with Liberalism, all the way through from Cobden and Bright to Hobhouse and the New Liberals, Lloyd George, Grimond, to Ashdown and Kennedy in modern times, we have had practical politicians concerned with fairness in a REAL sense. Sometimes you prioritise chances, sometimes outcomes, usually what produces both. But we live in an imperfect world….

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Dec '10 - 11:21am

    Asking people to leave their homes and communities after a two year tenancy is not fair

    Why not? That’s what happens to everybody who is renting.

  • I’m sorry if I’ve missed the point behind your philosophical arguments, but isn’t this just “tough love”? It’s been the defining aspect of Conservatism since Thatcher, the problem is there’s never been much agreement on when tough becomes “bullying”.

    And Dara letting the Icelandic banks fail has had much better consequences for Icelanders than propping up the Irish banks has had for the Irish.

  • Andrew Suffield wrote –

    “Asking people to leave their homes and communities after a two year tenancy is not fair”

    “Why not? That’s what happens to everybody who is renting.”

    I am sure you would agree that there are some people who will never be able to afford too buy their own home, are we to say to them that they will never experience a sense of community? or that their children can never have a stable education?
    Tell me, what is the average wage these days compared to the average family house price. in my area (Isle of Wight) it is £206,000 for a 2/3 bed house and if the ‘threshold’ for moving out of social housing is set at the average wage what’s going to happen then?

  • You can’t have tough love without the love, so of course there is a role for the state in aiding people develop their own judgement. Universal healthcare, state education, social security are all important tools in preventing the unlucky loosing out, but the real question is precisely when state interference becomes unwelcome. You’ve defined a very reasonable qualitative term, but not something that allows us to prove whether the benefit reforms or tuition fees are fair or unfair.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Dec '10 - 4:20pm

    I am sure you would agree that there are some people who will never be able to afford too buy their own home

    Yes, a very large number of them. Mostly they live in private rented accommodation.

    are we to say to them that they will never experience a sense of community?

    We don’t say this, no. It is perfectly possible to have a sense of community without living in the same room for your entire life. We do say that they do not have a right to live in the same place forever, and that their landlord has a right to terminate their lease without reason, after a suitable notice period.

    This is not a proposal. This is how the rental market works.

    Tell me, what is the average wage these days compared to the average family house price. in my area (Isle of Wight) it is £206,000 for a 2/3 bed house and if the ‘threshold’ for moving out of social housing is set at the average wage what’s going to happen then?

    They’re going to move into private rented accommodation like the rest of us who earn the same amount of money.

  • Adam Gillett 5th Dec '10 - 7:01pm

    Adam – the expansion of the basis for one’s judgements certainly expands the actions that one can judge before making them. But as you suggest with the example of the child in traffic, it does not limit the same actions taking place without prior judgement. This, as you say, divides the problem into action that is the responsibility of the individual – those actions which are within their scope for prejudgement (choice) – and actions that are effectively chaotic, existing outside that scope (luck). In this situation, the ‘luck’, being all that exists outside of the realm of judgement and knowledge, is surely the unknown. So if Transcendental Liberalism is an attempt to expand the individual’s sphere of responsible action through experience, how can it be applied externally to the individual? Would that not require us to give people facts and ideas that tell them what the unknown is without their experience confirming it? As such, can your concept coexist with education? Can you really teach people to use the levers, and if so how is this the individual’s development of his or her own principles? If the idea is to equalise the abilities of social beings to judge a situations, education is effective. But it seems to me that if you are giving people a system by which to judge an action before it has been acted, then when the individual acts he is not ‘learning’ by your definition but carrying out instructions or orders which he may or may not truly understand, even with repetition. Doesn’t that limit the individual as much as it frees him?

    I know it sounds terribly Rousseauian, but isn’t it a real flaw?

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