We must seize the opportunity offered by the COVID pandemic to build a fairer society. The pandemic has simultaneously laid bare how deep inequalities are, and how much these affect not just people’s quality of life but whether they live or die, while demonstrating that the state can play a much more interventionist role in the economy and can attract public support for doing so.
While the pandemic has made us more aware of the fault lines in our society, none of them are new. As James Plunkett has argued in End State, our current model for government and society was designed for a form of capitalism that is decades out of date. The social reforms introduced in response to the problems created by the industrial revolution (outlawing child labour, introducing public education, building public sewers) were seen by critics of the time as crazy, impossible or pernicious, but are now accepted as crucial parts of the social settlement. The same was true of the post-war reforms that ushered in the modern welfare state. We may well need to respond to the social and economic problems created by the digital revolution with a similarly bold set of reforms that will help us to reimagine a fair society for the next century and beyond, by providing the ‘fair necessities’ that allow people to make the most of their potential. In time these too will come to be seen as a ‘new common sense’. And we should continue to reimagine the role of the state, which should be bolder than its 20th century predecessor but also more open, simple, entrepreneurial and collaborative.
The government’s levelling up agenda can and should be entirely aligned with the goal of building a fairer society. It needs to recognise that levelling up is as much about people as it is about places. There is a genuine need to increase investment in areas outside London and the south-east – and to rebalance the economy away from the finance sector – but this must not undermine a focus on increasing support for people on low incomes or facing other forms of disadvantage wherever they live. Many people on low incomes live in affluent areas, including London. All other things being equal, we should focus initially on those changes that will deliver the biggest social returns on investment by reducing inequalities in terms of life chances for the largest number of people and to the biggest extent; in most cases, these will also deliver the biggest economic returns, since it is cheaper to prevent social problems early on than to have to deal with them at a later stage. However, we should also be mindful of the need to tackle problems that have a particularly severe impact on a smaller group of people and might therefore have a lower aggregate impact at the population level.
Society should focus on achieving wellbeing, dignity and the fulfilment of personal goals for everyone, rather than on the accumulation of wealth and status for those who make it to the top. We need to recognise that, even with a more level playing field, the links between talent, effort and reward are complex and are often distorted by other factors (such as the monetary value attached to a particular set of skills in the marketplace). We should rethink the role of universities as 'arbiters of opportunity', and give greater recognition as well as better pay to the key workers whose contributions to society we rely on so much, as the pandemic has shown. We need to encourage humility for those who achieve material success rather than humiliation for those who do not. This could help to repair some of the increasing political fragmentation that we have seen in recent years as people have reacted to the sense that they are 'looked down on' by elites.
Investing in building a fairer society will often require additional intervention by the state, and in many cases more public spending (at least in the short term). However, this is not always the case, and even where it is, these investments will pay for themselves in time. Most will deliver economic as well as social returns. Those that do not deliver direct economic returns will deliver indirect returns; prevention is always cheaper than cure, and fixing social problems will reduce the amount that the state needs to spend on coping with them. Where additional spending is needed in the short term, public support for any extra tax contributions needed can be won by making the tax system more progressive and less vulnerable to tax avoidance, and by designing social programmes that are universal and contributory rather than being restricted to particular groups on the basis of need. We will always ensure that any policy proposals that we promote are fully costed and are accompanied by a realistic plan for how to pay for them, as well as a conservative estimate of the long-term economic returns that they will generate.
We need to change the terms of the debate, as well as changing policies. Building a fairer society will not only generate significant social and economic returns; more fundamentally, it is a moral duty of the state to ensure that everyone has equal life chances. The way to achieve equal life chances is to give everyone the ‘fair necessities’ of life. Fairness is the key organising logic that underpins how we can (and must) build a positive future for humanity. It forces us to ask and then answer the question: does our society and economy enable everyone to live their life to the full? If we can engage with this challenge, we might have a chance of building a fairer society, which delivers genuine equality of opportunity by designing out bad luck as far as possible.