Public attitudes to fairness and equality

Humans have an innate expectation of fairness that evolved thousands of years ago. Evolution through natural selection favours animals that look after their own self-interest, but 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. This is cross-cultural, and children can understand it before they can talk. We are the only species that routinely chooses to help others and reacts strongly to perceived injustice. We have strong instincts for procedural fairness and for reciprocity, but also for ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met and has a fair chance to succeed. Societies that do not uphold this inbuilt sense of fairness become more divided and turbulent, and less successful.

Perhaps as a result of this instinct, people are less worried about the existence of a gap between rich and poor than by the existence of unfairness. People typically prefer fair inequality to unfair equality, and are more interested in eliminating poverty (and ensuring that everyone has the means to lead a good life) than in achieving equality. Yale University discovered that in a situation where everyone is equal, many people become angry or bitter if hard workers are under-rewarded or slackers are over-rewarded. Most people are less exercised by the existence of the wealthy than by the fact that the wealthy are able to play by different rules from everyone else; the Fabian Society found that robust views in demanding effort from those in need go hand-in-hand with anger at tax avoidance and strong cross-political support for a higher minimum wage and a better deal for carers. Research by Newcastle University suggests that most people believe that inequalities linked to merit or effort are more acceptable than those caused by luck. Harry Frankfurt argues that people are troubled less by inequality itself than by unfair causes of inequality, by the undesirable consequences of inequality, and by the level of absolute poverty (although we also know that most people want a more equal society than the one that we currently live in). Unfair causes of inequality might include monopoly power or exploitation, in contrast to the fair operation of markets.

Fairness has been invoked by politicians of all stripes to justify a wide range of different policies. It has often been used to set one group against another and to justify reducing public spending, for example by arguing that everyone should be treated equally and therefore that preferential treatment in the form of welfare support for groups such as the unemployed or single parents is unfair to hard-working members of the ‘squeezed middle’ who do not receive similar benefits. There is a missed opportunity to build an understanding of fairness that unites people around a shared vision of a society that rewards hard work while taking the necessary action to ensure that everyone benefits from the same life chances.

Repeated surveys show that fairness is at the top of most people's priorities for society. YouGov found that most people think in terms of social issues such as fairness, compassion and tolerance, rather than economic issues such as poverty, and that a fair society means a decent minimum standard of living for all; being secure and free to choose how to lead our lives; developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally; participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect of whatever race or gender; and building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations. Separately YouGov suggested that the most important values are family, fairness (making sure that people’s efforts are rewarded and that people do not get 'something for nothing'), hard work and decency. The Frameworks Institute found that key values are self-reliance, equality of opportunity, fair exchange, fair competition, interdependence, community, honesty and transparency, and democracy. The RSA suggested that people think about a fair economy as one in which citizens can make an equal contribution according to their means and their ability and have equality of opportunity; and the gap between citizens who can make contributions and have access to opportunities, and those who do not, is closed through education, transparency and policy.

Opinium found that 81% of Britons agree that fairness is about making sure that everyone is given an equal opportunity to achieve, while 70% believe that fairness is about making sure everyone gets what they deserve. A consistent theme in these surveys is strong public support for the core idea of luck egalitarianism – that a fair society should correct for inequalities resulting from ‘unearned’ bad luck in order to deliver genuine equality of opportunity, so that the mechanism by which hard work is rewarded operates in a fair way rather than being rigged to favour those who are better off.

Public attitudes research suggests that most people think that Britain is unfair, although one in three believe that we live in a fair society. The Webb Memorial Trust found that 94% of people think that fairness is important to a good society, but only 36% think that society today is fair. This echoes an Opinium poll showing that only 30% agree that “British society as a whole is fair”; 71% say it’s “one rule for some and a different rule for people like me”, while 69% agree that “rich people get an unfair advantage”. British Social Attitudes (BSA) found that 64% of people think that “ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth". The Sutton Trust found that just 35% think that people have equal opportunities to get ahead in life, that 47% of people think that today’s youth will have a worse life than their parents, and that 34% believe that coming from a wealthy family is important to success in life, with 54% citing "knowing the right people".

There are differing views about the most urgent and important issues to be addressed. King's College London (KCL) found that inequalities between more and less deprived areas, along with disparities in income and wealth, are seen as the most serious forms of inequality, and that attitudes to other forms such as racial inequalities are much more divided. Recent Ipsos MORI research for the IFS Deaton Review found that 53% of people say that levels of inequality are rising, particularly in relation to people being treated differently because of their social class, how much money they have or because of their race, while around three in five say they are concerned about issues such as many people not having enough money to live a comfortable life and that people in poorer areas tend to die at a younger age. It also found that people often struggle to reconcile their comfort with wealth inequality with their desire for a certain level of ‘fairness’ in society. Fewer people support government intervention to tackle inequality than are concerned by the level of inequality, and fewer still support more income redistribution by government (48% according to KCL, although BSA found that only 30% actively opposed it). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that most people support progressive tax and benefit systems, and targeted interventions to improve life chances for the disadvantaged, which is mirrored in strong support for the NHS treating everyone based on need and regardless of their income. But, whereas some people think that health inequalities (such as the impact of income levels on life expectancy) are systemic and unfair, many say that people should take responsibility for their unhealthy lifestyle choices. This supports the contention of luck egalitarians that unearned or ‘brute’ luck should be corrected, whereas earned or ‘option’ luck should not, although in practice it is often difficult to cleanly separate people’s choices from the contexts in which they are made.

Opinions are also split on what level of inequality in society is acceptable. The general preference for 'fair inequality' is based on a belief that hard work (and talent) should be rewarded. JRF found that people are not opposed to high incomes linked to high-level ability, performance or social contribution. KCL also found that most people believe both in the principles of meritocracy - that hard work and ambition should be linked to success - and that we live in a meritocratic society. BSA found that 39% of people believe that people generally ‘get what they deserve in society’, while 35% disagree. Opinium polling on ‘political tribes’ in 2021, following similar research in 2016, found that society has moved leftwards on economics in the five intervening years, with more people worried about inequality and believing that it is the responsibility of government to tackle it. The IFS Deaton Review into inequality suggests that people's perceptions of inequality can differ from actual levels of inequality, and that they are coloured by their values and beliefs, including whether they consider existing inequalities to be fair or unfair. But most people underestimate the level of both income and wealth inequality in the UK, and the vast majority of people are opposed to the level of economic inequality that exists today.