Fairness and inequality

Fairness is instinctive. People have an inherent belief that people should be rewarded in proportion to their contribution (hard work and talent), and few object to the idea that the ‘tall poppies’ who produce great economic benefits should be rewarded as a result. Most people prefer the idea of proportional outcomes to equal outcomes, which undermine incentives and ignore individual agency. They also believe in the idea of reciprocity: that everyone should contribute to society as far as they are able, and should be supported by society in return when they need it. A further core belief is that everyone should have the same opportunities to realise their full potential. Many believe that we need to do more than simply reducing overt discrimination to ensure that everyone has similar life chances, and a majority believe that inequality has become too high to ensure genuinely equal opportunities for everyone. People also have a strong belief that everyone should be treated equally in terms of due process, respect, social status and political influence. And there is a widely shared view that everyone should have their basic needs met, so that no one lives in poverty, regardless of how they got there.

Everyone wants their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces to grow up in a fair society. An innate sense of fairness is hardwired into us because humans evolved by building large social groups that depend on fair co-operation and rewarding positive behaviour. Study after study shows that fairness is at the top of most people's priorities for society. But fairness can mean different things to different people. On one level it is about procedural justice – whether everyone is treated in the same way and according to the rules. On another it is about outcomes – whether resources are distributed fairly. While some talk about equal outcomes, most people are more focused on equal opportunities – whether everyone has the same chances to succeed, and whether talent and hard work are rewarded fairly. This lack of a common understanding of fairness is holding us back.

We believe that it is crucial to define fairness clearly, and to build a vision for a fair society that most people can get behind, regardless of their values, beliefs or political affiliation (if any). The government knows that this matters, which is why it says that it is ‘levelling up’. However it eventually defines this concept, at the most basic level, levelling up is about building a fairer society and economy.

For most people, fairness means that everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their lives, regardless of where they live, of how much money or education their parents have, or of their gender, sexuality, race, religion or disabilities. This is the concept of equal opportunities. It is different from equal outcomes. Most people believe that some level of inequality is inevitable because there should be a link between effort and reward, and because everyone has different aptitudes and strengths. Many people are therefore less worried about the existence of a gap between rich and poor than by the existence of unfairness. However, there is a growing consensus that inequality has gone too far and needs to be tackled. While divisions remain between those who emphasise systemic inequality and those who think in terms of personal responsibility, there is a striking degree of consensus that the current system does not give people who work hard and want to get ahead a fair opportunity to succeed. Most people combine a belief in personal responsibility with a recognition of the need to do more to reduce inequality.

The idea of equal opportunities also has two rather different meanings. At its most basic level it simply involves removing the obvious barriers that prevent certain people from accessing educational, career or other opportunities, and some progress has been made in recent decades to reduce overt discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, disability and so on. But this does nothing substantive to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome the additional hurdles that they face, which prevent them from competing fairly for those opportunities with their peers.