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The meaningless of fairness

Posted by Katherine Trebeck Senior Researcher

19th Oct 2010

I recently saw someone's new Facebook status reading: "Belinda is having a well-deserved glass of wine after a hard day's shopping. Thirsty work." This suggests to me how quickly the term 'fairness' has become distorted and almost meaningless.

While hesitating to read too much into an off-the-cuff remark, it does alarm me that undertaking one of the most hedonistic of activities - a day's shopping - can be construed as constituting a task that 'deserves' yet more reward - a glass of wine.

Last week was a week when the term 'fairness' had its meaning almost obliterated by over-use on all sides of politics. In general, the word is now rolled out by politicians as easily and as glibly as they kiss babies and think that taxpayers should pay for their piano tuning and nail polish. As Ian Bell, columnist for the Glasgow Herald highlights, all political leaders are tying their colours to the mast of fairness.

Fairness means such different things to different people however that I'm far from convinced it has any use in describing, let alone analysing, policy changes and cuts to public services. For example, for one person, 'fairness' might mean massive remuneration for a particular job (let's say a merchant banker). David Cameron has said that for him, 'fairness means giving people what they deserve - and what people deserve depends on how they behave'.

For someone else, 'fairness' might mean that said merchant banker has his remuneration sufficiently taxed so that the state can support people less advantaged than he is (disabled people for example, or those whose employer has had to shut up shop). Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson's speech on Monday highlighted the unfairness of the government cuts, whereby "families take the strain while bankers grab the bonuses".

For me, it is as unfair as you can get that families on the national minimum wage have to work 70 hours a week to cross the poverty line, just as it is unfair that 'hard working taxpayers' subsidise through tax credits those employers who are unable or unwilling to pay above poverty wages (but that's a story for another blog).

So while the word 'fair' is hard to disagree with on face value, let's remember that it means very, very different things to different people, and that simply labelling a policy or a Budget or a Comprehensive Spending Review as 'fair' does not automatically mean it is progressive or focused on supporting the most vulnerable in our communities.

Instead, let's judge policies according to how enlightened they are; how well they support the long term prospects of our most vulnerable people; and how effectively they contribute to wider social value.

Blog post written by Katherine Trebeck

Senior Researcher

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Katherine Trebeck