That’s not fair!
As the playground plaint is echoed in Parliament, Martyn Oliver considers the coalition’s focus on fairness.
The date for the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review is drawing near, and David Cameron and his cabinet colleagues are seeking to justify the predicted cuts – most particularly the cuts in longterm benefits – on the ground of fairness.
How can it be right, they would say, for family A, whose adult members have never worked in their lives and whose kids rampage across the neighbourhood collecting ASBOs by the legful; how can it be right for them to receive more income from government handouts than family B next door brings home in hard-earned wages – family B, in which both adults have fulltime jobs and their 2.4 children go to school every day, come home to do paper rounds, and then spend the evening doing their homework? That’s not fair!
How can it be right, they would say, for Mr X to get up at six in the morning and head off to work at his minimum-wage job, knowing that the curtains in out-of-work longterm scrounger Mr Y’s house won’t be drawn before the afternoon, while he sleeps off last night’s skinful (bought, no doubt, with benefit cash, courtesy of the taxpayer). That’s not fair!
How can it be right, they would say, for Ms Z, still in her teens, who has deliberately had herself impregnated by some bloke she met in the pub and whose name she no longer recalls – if, indeed, she ever knew it; how can it be right for her to live in a smart Islington flat whose landlord demands and receives an exorbitant rent paid by housing benefit, while hardworking young teachers and nurses live two and three to a room, an hour and a half’s journey from their jobs? That’s not fair!
The distinction they would make is between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. And they’re right. It all sounds very Victorian, and smacks of the workhouse, but in essence the politicians are right. It can’t be equitable that those who are too idle, or too cynical, to make a contribution to the collective efforts of society should be better off than those who are prepared to work. But the government’s strategy for remedying the situation is wrong. Why? Because it’s not fair!
It’s not fair, for instance, for the government, in order to preserve the vote-saving token of universal benefits, to increase the tax burden of higher earners in order to claw back their child benefit. Especially when one takes into account the anomaly of the two-parent family whose wage-earners both come in just under the threshold and thus keep their entitlement to the lot, while the single parent whose sole salary tips them over the brink loses out. Why not just get rid of the notion of universality – it’s illusory anyway – match child benefit entitlement to household income, and be done with it?
And it’s not fair for the government to re-assess those on incapacity benefit with the declared intention to get them back onto the job-seekers register, using yet another arbitrary box-ticking exercise, especially when they cite as justification the specious platitude that the claimants’ health will be better if they do a job of work. Agreed, there is likely to be a proportion of malingerers among them, but these could be much more efficiently and fairly weeded out by means of a proper medical assessment. Too dear? Not if one takes into account the cost of the appeal tribunals that most of the tick-box-decided cases go to, and which evidence suggests most of them win.
It’s worth asking what fairness is, in relation to society. Arguably we had a much fairer society in the middle of the last century, for instance, although it took a world war to achieve it. Take the case of women, who were enabled to work in the place of men sent off to fight, and they did a magnificent job of it too, gaining volumes in self-respect into the bargain. And though there was some slippage when the war was over, the attitude to women in society has remained much more equitable since then. Rationing, too, was applied equally across society. The rich were entitled to the same pinch of dried egg per week as were the poor. There was always the black market, of course, and money could make life a lot more bearable; but even so there was a sense of levelling, of being “all in the same boat” brought about by rationing.
More specifically, it can be argued that fairness is an attribute of the way that society deals with individuals that doesn’t disadvantage one against another, and at the same time takes their dignity into account. Another view of fairness would discount the individual in favour of the greater good of the community (a rather Socratic way of looking at democracy, maybe? Or a Benthamite way – the greatest good of the greatest number?).
The coalition government’s way seems to rest on making distinctions on the grounds of input, regardless of capability (“Put more in and you’ll get more out, and never mind the fact that you’re physically or emotionally unfit to work”). And that’s not fair!
Finally, we should ask what work is there for our unemployed masses to do? Very little. Very little, at any rate, that brings a sense of self-respect to the worker. It’s all very well for (the otherwise admirable) Iain Duncan Smith to prate about so many million jobs available on the Job Centre lists. But how many of them are real jobs in which, at the end of the working week, something has been made, something that can actually be used, maybe even – heaven forbid – exported? No. Our “me” society has forgotten – abandoned – its work ethic, preferring instead to be managers or entrepreneurs, getting fat on the sweat of someone else’s manual labour. Except there is no labour for someone else to do, because we sold our manufacturing industry down the river 30 years ago. The overwhelming majority of employment “opportunities” are in service-industry jobs, part-time and at minimum wage. And if the claimant is fortunate enough to land one of these shameful excuses for a job, then it will almost certainly be three bus rides away in another town, and most of the paltry income will be sucked up in fares. And that’s not fair!
As for me, I’d just as soon dig holes in the ground, or paint window-frames for OAPs, or whatever other modern-day Speenhamland system is devised to give me some notion of achievement and self-respect.
For the philosopher’s take on fairness as it applies to the spending review, read what Angela Hobbs, Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy at Warwick University, has to say on the BBC “Today” programme’s website.