Finding a balance

Any workable approach to fairness needs to recognise and respond to the role of unearned luck, at birth and during life, in determining how each of our lives pans out. We cannot reasonably say that a system that treats everyone equally is fair when peoples' starting points in life are so different. A fair system needs to compensate for bad luck at birth, just as it compensates for bad luck in life (for example, by providing healthcare to people who become unwell).

Equality of opportunity only makes sense if we can develop an effective system for designing out unearned luck as far as possible. If people do not have access to minimum levels of healthcare, education, housing, information and justice, how can they compete fairly with others? To quote Ha-Joon Chang: "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."

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. We need to 'design out' bad luck at birth.

If we could do our best to design out bad luck at birth (and in childhood), we would be in a much better position than we are now when it comes to providing equal opportunities in adulthood. Needless to say, even if we built a society in which most people started life with similar opportunities, we would still need to provide additional support to many people (such as those with disabilities, as well as people who had not benefited from equal opportunities earlier in life). On top of that, we would need to ensure that everyone in society receives equal access to opportunities at every stage of their lives. This would require open and competitive markets, fair admissions and recruitment processes, decent universal public services such as education and health, and a social security system to cope with unearned bad luck that occurs during life. And of course, it would require us not to discriminate on the basis of people’s race, gender, sexuality or religion. For those who are unable or unwilling to achieve material wealth, we should build a society that gives everyone the opportunity to play their part in civic life, to live a life of dignity and control, and to make as much as possible of their talents and abilities.

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. As Debra Satz and Stuart White argue in the IFS Deaton Review: “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.” And as the authors of Britain's Choice argue: “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.”

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 and vertically (see above).

Taking racial equality as an example, it would acknowledge that the barriers and disadvantages facing black and minority ethnic (BME) people are not simply a result of socio-economic status combined with cultural differences, but are largely the result of systemic factors that include institutional racism. These systemic factors disadvantage BME people at every stage of life, from the environment in which they grow up and the education that they receive to the ways in which they experience the job market and the criminal justice system, and the poorer health outcomes that affect them in later life. Simply removing the most obvious instances of discrimination and overt racism, and highlighting a few cases of social mobility as evidence of ‘fairness’, is nowhere near enough to overcome these barriers and to deliver equal life chances for everyone. Similar arguments can be made about the unequal opportunities and unequal treatment suffered across all life stages by disabled people, by women, by LGBTQ+ people and by members of some religious groups.

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 designing out bad luck as far as possible, in particular (but not only) by ensuring that everyone has equal life chances at birth, as well as on ensuring that equals are treated equally, while 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’.

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 five ‘fair necessities’ are:

  1. Everyone is rewarded in proportion to their effort and talents[1]
  2. Everyone has the same substantive opportunities to realise their potential[2]
  3. Everyone contributes to society as far as they can, and is supported by society when they need it
  4. Everyone has their basic needs met so that no one lives in poverty
  5. Everyone is treated equally in terms of due process, respect, social status, political influence and public services[3]

[1] ‘Proportion’ is key. Exceptional rewards are only fair if they correspond to a universally accepted exceptional performance or contribution.

[2] This broadly equates to the idea of ‘designing out bad luck’. It requires us to take radical steps to remove the structural barriers that face people who are born into disadvantaged circumstances.

[3] Some people, groups or regions may need to be treated differently to enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else. This is the driver behind the idea of levelling up. In other cases, well-designed interventions that are not restricted to certain parts of society will bring particular benefits to more deprived groups.

The concept of balanced fairness differs from other approaches in the following ways:

  • Libertarianism – we disagree that individuals are totally responsible for their lot, that social and economic structures and regulations should only be used in extremis, and that the unregulated market will ensure that wealth will trickle down from the ‘tall poppies’ to the rest of us
  • Equal treatment – we disagree that treating everyone equally is automatically fair, since people don’t start from equal starting points
  • Weak meritocracy – we disagree that simply removing the most obvious obstacles to equality of opportunity (overt discrimination against particular groups) is sufficient
  • Strong meritocracy – we reject the primacy of merit in determining social status, and the argument that it doesn’t matter what happens to those who don’t succeed as they haven’t earned their success; instead, we believe that everyone should be treated with respect and that no one should be allowed to fall into poverty, regardless of what circumstances led them there
  • Luck egalitarianism – we disagree that it is desirable to compensate for differences in talent or capacity for hard work, other than by sharing some of the proceeds of this ‘good luck’ via a progressive and effective tax system that covers both earned and unearned income, and we disagree that society bears no responsibility for those who have fallen on hard times through bad luck of their own making
  • Relational egalitarianism – we disagree that societies only need as much economic equality as is necessary for status equality and preventing major inequalities of power, and that reducing economic inequality is not also an end in itself as well as a means to achieving relational equality
  • Full egalitarianism – we disagree that it is desirable for the state to intervene to the extent of delivering equal outcomes for everyone, excusing people of any sense of personal responsibility and removing rewards that incentivise people to develop their talents and to work hard

This table attempts to show how each of these approaches, including balanced fairness, differs in how they view a range of ways in which society could be structured.