Fairness and equality
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.
Designing out bad luck
People often underplay the role of luck in determining life outcomes. A fair society should respect the fact that people can 'earn' good or bad luck by making different choices, and that this has consequences. But it should also recognise that 'unearned' bad luck (and, to some extent, good luck) is not fair, and should take steps to prevent it or compensate for it. In particular, we should 'design out’ bad luck at birth as far as possible, so that every child has the same life chances regardless of the circumstances into which they are born (family income, social connections, and so on). We should also ensure that people are protected from bad luck throughout life, in areas such as social security, work and education, just as the NHS provides everyone with healthcare when they fall ill.
The fair necessities
We propose a definition of 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 as follows:
FAIR REWARDS Everyone is rewarded in proportion to their effort and talents*
FAIR OPPORTUNITIES Everyone has the same substantive opportunities to realise their potential**
FAIR EXCHANGE Everyone contributes to society as far as they can, and is supported by society when they need it
FAIR ESSENTIALS Everyone has their basic needs met so that no one lives in poverty
FAIR TREATMENT Everyone is treated equally in terms of due process, respect, social status, political influence and public services***
* Exceptional rewards are only fair if they correspond to a universally accepted exceptional performance or contribution.
** This requires radical steps to remove structural barriers that face people born into disadvantaged circumstances, effectively by designing out bad luck.
*** Some people (or regions) need to be treated differently (equity) to have the same opportunities as everyone else. This is the idea behind levelling up.
How unfairness shows up in society
The COVID pandemic has increased public awareness of the level of inequality in our society, and of the impact that this has on people's living standards and even on life expectancy. This level of inequality is not only the result of varying degrees of talent and effort; it is mostly due to people having very different life chances and opportunities to make the most of their talents, and so it is unfair. We see this unfairness in every aspect of society and the economy, from democracy, education, the environment, health and housing, to justice, social security, taxation, wealth and work.
How problems reinforce each other
Unfairness builds on itself in two ways. Firstly, many people suffer from multiple sources of disadvantage at the same time. Secondly, fewer opportunities at one stage in life often fuel a vicious circle in which future life chances are even more limited. The social contract has been broken down by this 'compound unfairness', and by the fact that our economy subsidises the wealthy rather than investing in those who need support.
Equal life chances for children
We need to give each child the same life chances, wherever in the country they grow up and whatever resources their family has. We focus on three priorities. We must finally end child poverty. We also need to improve educational standards and early-years provision. And we must ensure that every child grows up in a healthy and sustainable environment.
A fair deal for adults
We need to make sure that every adult gets a fair deal, meaning that we reward hard work while protecting people against bad luck. Delivering real equality of opportunity will require us to reduce inequality and to help people who face greater barriers to realising their potential. We should aim to build a society in which everyone enjoys a broad 'equality of condition'. This will benefit everyone.