The 2020 Britain's Choice report by More in Common and YouGov divided the population into seven groups, based on their values and beliefs. Its research suggested that 73% of people think that inequality is a serious problem, while a majority of all but two groups think that we should always strive to reduce inequality rather than accepting that it is inevitable. A large majority thinks the hard work of key workers, highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, should be better rewarded. At the same time, 69% of people think that people are largely responsible for their own outcomes in life, against 31% who say that people's outcomes in life are determined largely by forces outside of their control.
The report concludes that most people can come together around the goal of building a fair society: “instead of seeing class and inequality as causes of division in British society, perhaps the work of creating a fairer society is something that can bring us together… there is a consensus on the need to address inequality that transcends political divisions and reflects majority views... what is striking is how much common ground there is between those who emphasise systemic inequality and those who emphasise personal responsibility… most believe that the economy does not afford enough opportunity for those who work hard and want to get ahead… [and] integrate a belief in personal responsibility [with] the need to do more to reduce inequality."
Research into public attitudes carried out by King’s College London for the IFS Deaton Review of inequality divides people in Britain into three groups, based on their beliefs in two competing explanations for the existence of inequalities. The first group, structuralists (32% of the population) believe that systematic issues create and perpetuate inequalities. The second, individualists (29% of the population) believe that outcomes are determined by individual efforts, and is eager to see the world as fair. The other 39% of people fall somewhere in the middle, which suggests that they hold views that combine a belief in the importance of hard work with a recognition of the impact of larger societal forces on people’s life chances.
However, the research conducted for the review also suggests that most individualists are concerned about income inequalities and place-based inequalities, and that even among this group, almost one in three believe that benefits are too low. It also found that a majority of individualists agree that there is a different law for rich and poor, that money facilitates a healthier lifestyle, and that society was unequal before the COVID pandemic. All three groups agree that a fair society should reward hard work, and that those in need should be taken care of, irrespective of their reciprocal contribution to society.
The review concludes that people’s attitudes are not fixed, and that the COVID pandemic has provided “an opening for a more interventionist approach to tackling inequality”, with more support for generous benefits, more than a third of each group agreeing that the pandemic “strengthens the need for government to redistribute income from rich to poor”, and almost half agreeing that “the experience of the pandemic has made the case for a more active role for government in the future”.
We should also pay heed to the warning given in an IFS introductory article to this research: “Philosophers have tended to conclude that distinctions between inequalities arising from people’s own efforts and those arising from structural or environmental factors are difficult or impossible to use as the ultimate driver of public policy – and there are good reasons why they have come to that conclusion. But policy design must bear in mind that this distinction is highly salient to many people, as the work on public attitudes shows.”