Fairness lessons from the French elections
Fairness lessons from the French elections

Fairness lessons from the French elections

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Fairness, freedom, democracy and opportunity are the closely intertwined themes of this week’s newsletter.

Will Snell

Chief Executive Fairness Foundation

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The close French election result shows how democracy depends on fairness

Yesterday’s presidential vote in France was a close call for Emmanuel Macron, with the far-right winning its highest number of votes yet. Marine Le Pen failed to pull off a Brexit- or Trump-style shock, but she came uncomfortably close.

Macron knows that his support was undermined by widespread anger about inequality, with the increasing cost of living just the latest in a long list of justified complaints. The French are angry because French society has become too unfair. And unfair societies threaten democracy, because they undermine freedom.

How does a lack of fairness undermine freedom? Some people might argue that fairness restricts freedom. But this is only true if we define freedom in very narrow terms, as negative freedom. Negative freedom removes all but the most basic restrictions on people’s activities, intervening only to prevent direct and obvious harm.

Positive freedom is very different. It is similar to the idea of ‘substantive freedoms’ proposed by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen when he developed the capability approach (further elaborated by the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum). These include the ability to live to old age, to engage in economic transactions, and to take part in political activities. Substantive freedoms may be limited by a lack of personal resources, but also by the economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental conditions in society.

In other words, substantive (or positive) freedom is fairness. Capabilities are another way of talking about opportunities – real opportunities for people to live the lives that they want to live. Societies that focus on negative freedom tend to directly undermine positive freedom, because they do little or nothing to prevent rising inequality. And inequality (economic, social, or political) prevents many people from living healthy, productive and fulfilling lives.

We know this to be true in the UK today. People living in the least deprived areas of England can expect to enjoy almost two decades more of healthy life than those in the most deprived areas. And inequality is high in France too, even if it is not as high as in many other countries. The denial of positive freedom leads people to lose their faith in democracy, and fuels support for populists and, eventually, for autocrats and dictators.

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Those people who prize freedom above all else should be clear about what exactly they value. We can draw a clear line between the promotion of one form of freedom (negative freedom from the ‘deadening hand’ of the social democratic state) and the loss of another form of freedom (positive freedom that gives everyone real opportunities and capabilities), which in turn risks the loss of the fundamental freedom of living in a democracy.

The absence of positive freedom – of fairness – has an economic as well as a political and social cost. When our systems and structures deny people the opportunities to pursue their individual dreams, we waste huge amounts of untapped talent. The American academic Joseph Fishkin talks about bottlenecks to opportunity as “the narrow places through which people must pass in order to pursue many life paths that open out on the other side”. Unfair societies knowingly construct, or tolerate the continued existence of, these bottlenecks. Sometimes they take the form of overt discrimination, but often they simply make it harder for those from deprived backgrounds to compete on a level footing with others.

Seen from this vantage point, the pursuit of opportunities for all is more about freedom than equality. It is about loosening the constraints that limit the lives that people can pursue, giving people the freedom to pursue lives that they value rather than having their lives constrained by limited opportunities. Fairness is about increasing choice and freedom for everyone, not just those already enjoy large amounts of both. If we can deliver this, we will reap huge economic, political and social rewards.

Reads of the week

Vera Kubenz writes for The Conversation about how disabled people are being left out of the COVID recovery, and five ways to change it.

Onward have just published Taking the Temperature, a report containing polling data that finds that scrapping the net zero target would cost the Conservatives 1.3 million votes at the next general election.

A watch, not a read: Dr Alexis Paton, Director of the Centre for Health and Society at Aston University will be talking about fairness in relation to clinical, ethical and pandemic guidance during COVID-19, and its impact on health inequalities, especially for ethnic minority populations in particular, in a free online event on 5 May.

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