Building public support

Balanced fairness focuses much of its energy on designing out bad luck at birth, to ensure that, as far as possible, everyone starts life on a level playing field, with genuinely equal opportunities to make the most of their talents and efforts. If this cannot be achieved, any attempts to compensate for its absence later in life will fail.

The public is to some extent divided about the extent to which the state should intervene in people's lives, and how much individuals are responsible for their lot, although the pandemic has demonstrated that these divisions might not be as stark as previously assumed, given the strong consensus in support of both public health restrictions and economic support packages. Nonetheless, key differences of opinion remain, such as how much non-disabled adults should be helped by wider society. In searching for opportunities to build consensus, we propose to start with a group that everyone wants to help, regardless of their political beliefs or values: children.

No one can argue that a child deserves to be born into poverty or bears any responsibility for the circumstances in which they are raised. A child cannot be expected to make the best possible choices or to suffer the consequences of making the wrong ones. Children have no responsibility for whether their parents can afford food or books. Even people who most oppose notions of 'social justice' agree that children should not suffer from poverty in this way, and that it is the role of government to ensure that they do not. Injustices that affect children provoke a visceral emotional response from people across the political spectrum. The success of the footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign for free school meals is based at least in part of the impossibility of saying no when children's welfare is at stake.

The challenge is to persuade a broad group of the public, media and policymakers that a fundamental set of interventions is needed, not just to help the lucky and talented few to climb the rungs of social mobility, but to give everyone the same opportunities to succeed and to repair the social contract that links hard work to decent living standards, while recognising that some people are innately blessed with talents and a capacity for hard work that others do not have. We have to convince the one in three people who believe that we live in a fair society that the degree of unfairness is sufficiently extreme, and damaging, to justify corrective action. We must tap into people's aspirations and fears for their own children and grandchildren, and encourage them to think about how their children would have fared without the opportunities and support that they received. And we must hammer home the importance of investing in children's early years development, and the circumstances in which they grow up, for their prospects in later life. There is a short window of opportunity to do this, coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, when people are more aware of the severity of inequality, the fracturing of the social contract and the fragility of the social safety net, and yet have experienced a sense of connectedness and community that has long been absent.

We need to increase public awareness of the relationship between socio-economic inequalities and health inequalities, and to challenge the overriding narrative that ill health is largely the result of poor individual lifestyle choices. If people were more aware of the impacts of poverty and inequality on health outcomes, there would be greater demand for change. For example, black African men were 3.7 times more likely to die than white men in the first wave of coronavirus, because of where they live, what jobs they do, and their levels of income and wealth. People in the poorest areas in England will on average die seven years earlier than those in the richest. We need to argue that these health inequalities are unfair (as they are caused by socio-economic inequalities that arise from the unfair distribution of resources and opportunities), but are also unnecessary and hugely expensive (around £40 billion every year in lost taxes, lost productivity, social security payments, and NHS costs). We should be making the case that the most effective policies to health inequalities are the same as those needed to reduce economic inequalities, dismantle structural racism, tackle the climate emergency and enhance democracy, and that these policies, such as introducing better protections for gig economy workers and building more social housing, will benefit huge numbers of people across society and not just members of particular social groups.

We need to move from a vicious circle, in which high levels of inequality reduce public support for state intervention to address them, to a virtuous circle as seen in countries like Denmark, where there is strong public support for higher levels of state investment in public services that deliver universal benefits, including childcare, education, healthcare and social care, and social security. Part of the challenge is to build a stronger sense of solidarity among people whose problems have more in common than they might think, and to persuade people that a fair society needs to do more to ensure that the link between effort and reward is not undermined by unequal life chances. We need to encourage people to think of themselves once again as citizens of a shared society, and not merely as individual consumers in the marketplace. We need to continue to challenge the idea that the only alternative to free-market capitalism is socialism. And we need to focus on interventions that make society fairer by making people feel more secure (for example, by making housing more affordable), so that they feel less of a need to accrue as much private wealth as possible in order to provide a comfortable future for themselves and their children.

Levels of public support for state intervention to tackle inequality depend to a very large extent on how that intervention is both designed and communicated. Research by King’s College London for the IFS Deaton Review has shown that there is more support among conservative voters for ‘taking measures’ to address inequalities than for redistribution specifically. This is one of several arguments for focusing on policy measures that aim for ‘predistribution’, so that income and wealth is more evenly shared in the first place, as well as on redistributive measures that try to compensate for their uneven sharing across society. Paul Johnson at the IFS has argued that “policies that deal with the underlying problems of the abuse of market power, discrimination and opportunity through education, may gain more support. We should stop theft, not tax its ill-gotten gains.”

We need to make people more aware of the benefits for everyone of living in a fairer society:

  • Co-operation. In prehistory, humans flourished by building large social groups that depend on co-operation, which is sustained by fairness: equalising rewards across a group, sharing resources fairly and punishing selfish behaviour. Societies that do not uphold this inbuilt sense of fairness become more divided and turbulent, and less successful. Many collapse (look at the Roman Empire).
  • Social outcomes. Social problems are worse in more unequal societies. Many affect everyone, such as high levels of crime and low levels of trust, social cohesion and mental health. Inequality leads to levels of infant mortality that are higher among wealthy Britons than, for example, poorer Swedes.
  • Political stability. Unfairness undermines healthy democracies by giving the wealthy excessive political influence, undermining democratic principles (including the rights to vote, to run for office, and to free speech and assembly), and creating dangerous divisions in society. It also undermines faith in the democratic system itself; if people do not have a fair opportunity to make the most of their lives, they are more likely to be attracted to populists or even to extremists.
  • More opportunities. Fair opportunities benefit everyone by removing the pressure of competing for a small number of elite educational institutions, both because there are less differences in quality between institutions and because there are more good job opportunities to follow them. As a result, parents don’t have to make huge efforts or sacrifices to secure coveted places for their children.
  • Pooled risk. Fair societies provide universal, reciprocal, collective insurance systems to protect everyone against the risk of suffering bad luck, such as serious disease or loss of employment. They ensure that major costs such as social care are shared fairly rather than falling entirely on individuals.
  • People living in fair societies don’t have to accrue private wealth (such as through housing) to ensure that they and their children will be able to withstand shocks or to get on in life. They feel less pressure to pass down inherited wealth to their children as the only guarantee of security. Less inequality also means that there is less risk of falling down the social mobility ladder. Unequal societies create vicious circles in which people maximise their own wealth in order to protect their loved ones.
  • Unfair societies harm economic growth because they undermine efficient markets. The poor don’t spend money while the rich hoard it offshore. The link between hard work and reward is corrupted when a lot of wealth is unearned, failure is rewarded and fair and open competition is undermined. High levels of inequality dampen both demand and output. Fairer societies are more productive and more efficient.
  • Healthy institutions. Some degree of economic equality is necessary to support effective social, economic and political institutions that are needed to protect and advance many of the public goods outlined above, including economic prosperity, political stability and security.