We cannot reasonably say that a system that treats everyone equally is fair when peoples' starting points in life are so different.
Equality of opportunity only makes sense if people have access to minimum levels of healthcare, education, housing, information and justice. Otherwise, how can they compete fairly with others?
We can accept the outcome of a competitive process as fair only when the participants have equality in basic capabilities; the fact that no one is allowed to have a head start does not make the race fair if some contestants have only one leg. Ha-Joon Chang
One way to compensate for the lack of a level playing field is to design ‘positive action’ schemes, which attempt to achieve equity for disadvantaged people, for example in relation to university admissions or job interviews. These initiatives recognise that some people need more help in order to enjoy equal opportunities. But they face two problems. Firstly, they attract opposition from those who claim that they violate the principles of procedural fairness. Secondly, they tackle the symptoms rather than the causes of unfairness, so they are doomed to fail. The playing field is pitched at too steep an angle; ‘positive action’ interventions that try to compensate for this are too little, too late.
The only way to achieve genuine equality of opportunity is to give everyone equal chances at birth, as far as possible, so that people start life on something near a level playing field.
Only if all of these conditions are satisfied can a system of reward and compensation that is based on proportionality and ‘just deserts’ be truly fair.
Where the wider economy lacks fairness in its structures of opportunity and reward, the demand for work as reciprocity requires unfairly disadvantaged workers to work even though other, more advantaged citizens have not made good on their obligations to ensure fair opportunities and rewards. As a matter of fairness, we cannot impose one-sided obligations: there is a failure of reciprocity by the better-off as well. Debra Satz and Stuart White, What is wrong with inequality?
A key test of a fair society is that it effectively removes the multiple and mutually reinforcing barriers that affect not only people born into poorer families or areas but also people who are members of one or more groups that are generally disadvantaged and that form protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 – women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, LGBTQ+, some religions. A fair society would tear down the multiple barriers that stand in the way of a young disabled black girl born into poverty so that she has the same life chances as her wealthy, white, able-bodied male peers. It would recognise that those barriers have a compounding effect, both horizontally (in their interaction with each other) and vertically (over time).
This vision of a fair society is based on reconciling the ideas of proportionality and ‘just deserts’ with a concerted effort to redesign our social and economic institutions so that they deliver genuine equality of opportunity. Achieving this second goal will require society to guarantee certain minimum living standards and standards of public services, and to move closer to equal outcomes than the very unequal society that we live in today. But we do not think that equal outcomes are fair or desirable. Instead, we believe that fairness can best be delivered by guaranteeing everyone genuinely equal opportunities to succeed.
This in turn depends on ensuring that everyone has close-to-equal life chances at birth, equals are treated equally, and those who are still disadvantaged are given additional support.
Fairness also requires that we value everyone equally (even if we accept some level of material inequality to allow people to be rewarded for talent and hard work), rather than positioning people in a status hierarchy based on perceived ‘merit’.
Policies have a much greater chance of gaining public support if they are developed with an understanding of the core beliefs of different population segments, both in their design and communication. For example, policies intended to address inequality need to combine tackling systemic factors with genuinely creating opportunity and rewarding work and responsibility – an approach that can hold together support across all segments.
More in Common, Britain's Choice
We call this approach balanced fairness. We propose a definition of balanced fairness in terms of five ‘fair necessities’ that could form the basis of an organising philosophy that most people in Britain would support. This in turn could underpin a platform for root-and-branch reform of the way that our society and economy is organised, which could draw support from a wide range of political traditions and parties.
Our proposed ‘fair necessities’ are set out here, and we have written about them in detail in The Fair Necessities.