Fairness…

It is one of those words that everyone claims as their own. A bit like ‘freedom’ or ‘common sense’ (OK, that last one was two words, but you get my point.) We all think that our side has the definitive understanding and the most sincere application, sometimes despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

This is not a new game, of course – we have been playing it for a long time. Think about the British empire, grasping, oppressive and brutal as it always was… and yet we convinced ourselves that our true instincts were about playing the game fairly, spreading civilisation and good governance.

It can be helpful to point to someone else who is much worse than us. We Scottish people tend to blame it all on the English for example, as if none of us ever schemed and stabbed and ran our own slave plantations. Thankfully, these days we have Trump. We have BoJo and his old Etonian enablers. Their unfairness makes ours seem invisible

There is also a particular kind of civility that is often used as a smoke screen, mostly by privileged well educated people. Today, I heard a doctor on a radio 4 programme talking about what Covid might have revealed to us about health inequalities in this country. Her answer stunned me. Whilst acknowledging ‘unconscious bias’ the greatest problem it had revealed to her was that some people did not speak good English, so might not be able to communicate well with Doctors. As if they were dying from bad syntax, rather than poor overcrowded housing and a thousand tiny cuts from blades made out of…unfairness. But there I go- pointing the finger at some poor doctor who has no doubt saved a dozen lives before I even get out of bed. I am being unfair.

“The second conclusion, which is the heart of the book, is that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”

― Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Fairness, it might be said, is a national obsession, but mostly we view it though a consumer lens. Consider the collective outrage of a ruined package holiday or a poorly made brand of washing machines. Then consider the garden fence battles over inches of tarmac or the shade cast by a chestnut tree, or where people park their cars. This kind of fairness is always about ME, never about you. It is not about universal rights, it is only about mine.

“if we consider the total growth of the US economy in the thirty years prior to the crisis, that is, from 1977 to 2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. The richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of US national income in this period. Hence for the bottom 90 percent, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5 percent per year.”

― Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

The thing is though, I think that fairness is very important. Perhaps it is THE most important aspiration we can have within our policial and economic situation at the moment. We have lived through a time when the gap between top and bottom has been widening, in just about every parameter that matters. Poverty/wealth, sickness/health, educational attainment, prison incarceration. These things used to matter within our politics, but they have not for some time; in fact, the very language we used to use to describe fairness no longer makes sense. We used to talk about social class and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation. Our education system was primarily concerned with equal opportunity. Our benefits system employed non means-tested benefits wherever possible to avoid shame and stigma and the amounts provided were enough to live on without resorting to food banks. Governments almost fell because they failed to meet targets for building enough social housing.

I sound like one of those blokes in the pub who bangs on about ‘things being better in the old days’, don’t I? Well in this instance, at least our aspirations towards fairness were better. We have forgotten these aspirations and the huge supporting bodies of research evidence telling us what helps and what hinders. In fact, we have actively suppressed this research, condeming it as do-gooding-political-correctness-gone-mad perpetrated by wooly liberals driving 2CV’s with ‘Nuclear Power, No Thanks’ stickers on the back. (Full disclosure. I once actually owned a 2CV, with afermentioned sticker firmly in place. Make of that what you will!) The zeitgeist of the last twenty years was driven by free market thinking, applied to every human activity. If it did not make a profit, it had no value. The market alway knows best, or so we were told, so all activies had to opened up to the kinds of lean innovations that are only driven by the white heat of wealth seeking competition.

“In contrast to what many people in Britain and the United States believe, the true figures on growth (as best one can judge from official national accounts data) show that Britain and the United States have not grown any more rapidly since 1980 than Germany, France, Japan, Denmark, or Sweden. In other words, the reduction of top marginal income tax rates and the rise of top incomes do not seem to have stimulated productivity (contrary to the predictions of supply-side theory) or at any rate did not stimulate productivity enough to be statistically detectable at the macro level.”

― Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

The problem is that a by-product of this kind of thinking has been a widening gap between those at the top and bottom of society to the point where it is possible to make a comparison between the beginning of the twenty first century and Edwardian England. It is almost as if the very process of unfettered wealth accummulation becomes a runaway train that devours more and more. When you have a Billion, you must always have two, or so it seems. Greed is not good, it is insatiable.

“When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

― Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Are there signs that the great disruption caused by the virus might be highlighting the nature of this inequality? I have been enjoying the discussions on this series of programmes greatly, not because I have agreed with everything people have said (remember the doctor I mentioned earlier?) but because it feels as though issues of equality and fairness are entering into the national consciousness once again.

When we look at who became ill and died in our rich western societies, the reality is stark. The impact is not egalitarian. We are NOT all at the same risk. The individualism that has dominated our thinking first told us that we were personally responsible in part- if we were too fat, too unhealthy. The old people who died in droves in our poorly run and woefully underfunded care system would have died soon anyway, right? I even heard discussions about how there must be something within the DNA of black people that makes them more vulnerable…

“For millions of people, “wealth” amounts to little more than a few weeks’ wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture. The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities. That is why it is so essential to study capital and its distribution in a methodical, systematic way.”

― Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

We are left with two questions. Firstly, do we really want our societies to be more equal, and secondly, how can we move in this direction fairly?

I hope that the answers to these questions will be at the centre of our politics post-virus. Whether this happens or not will depend to a large extent on new formulations, new ideas and new leadership, and it is these that I intend to look for and celebrate on this blog through the next year…

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