The foolishness of “fairness”

by Sam Fowles

Iain Duncan Smith has said he won’t apologise for trying to make our welfare state “fairer”. But “fairness” is both an impossible and irresponsible goal in public policy.

The “silly season” is upon us and, unlike Labour (who appear to have collectively gone on holiday to another dimension, so deafening has been their media silence) Ian Duncan Smith has decided to use it to sell (or resell) his welfare cap. Unfortunately, while – in keeping with the season – the policy itself is silly in the extreme, its effects will be terrifyingly serious.

But the welfare cap is merely symptomatic of a wider misconception, one which is endemic in both public policy and public discourse: that public policy can or should ever be “fair”. “Fairness” is an unachievable goal and aiming at it only leads to bad policy making. It encourages a skewed view of the role of government and the function of the individual in society. A government which aspires to make “fair” policy will always be reduced to distributing different shades of unfairness. A better conceptual framework for public policy is based, not on fairness but responsibility. Government should be a facilitator, allowing citizens to discharge their intrinsic responsibility to society.

The welfare cap offers an excellent illustration of the contradiction inherent in the idea of public policy “fairness”. Duncan Smith claims that he is eliminating the unfairness that some people on benefits have a higher income than the average working family. The power of this argument lies in its truth. If one is in the position of a lower middle class working man (Mr A) then it is not fair that you must pay taxes so that some people can live, without working themselves, on a larger income than your own family.

However if one takes a different perspective, for example, a child (Child B) in a large family whose father (the sole earner) has just become a victim of the civil service or army job cuts then it is unfair that your quality of life should plummet dramatically (perhaps just as you are taking A-levels, thus jeopardising your university place) because of this government’s attempts to impose the one ideology they can remember from their Oxford politics lectures. The total income of a family (regardless of the number of children or any special needs they may have) will be limited to £500 per week which will include, among others, carers allowance, child benefit and severe disablement allowance. The cap is patently unfair on those, such as the severely disabled, who require a larger income to maintain a basic quality of life.

When considered on this micro level, public policy will always be unfair on someone. The public debate is often distorted by a focus on the outlying data; the super rich or willfully unemployed. But this often distracts from the real impacts of policy on the majority of people which means we rarely get to see the big picture. When the public debate about welfare focuses on Mick Philpott it presents the misleading idea that the welfare cap is simply a matter of preventing abuse of the system. Actually it’s a matter of the government distributing unfairness.

But this, in itself, is an incredibly anti social view. It starts from the Hobbesian premise that humans are naturally savagely individualistic and, if we are to contribute to society, that contribution must be imposed upon us. The government’s role becomes about distributing a punitive burden and politics is simply the debate about where that burden should be most heavily felt.

This is both intellectually regressive and a-historical. It implies that society is not a natural state for humans because contributing to it is something we must be forced to do. But society is not merely a function of humanity, it is the basis of it. The innate need to live in society, to work co operatively for the greater collective good, enabled homo sapiens to become the dominant species on the planet. Government does not force us to live in a society, it is merely the most effective way of regulating it. This isn’t a new realisation, it’s been a staple of political thought since Aristotle’s maxim: “Man is by nature a social animal”. The individualist approach to social science, from Hayek onward, (to which successive Western governments remain inexplicably attached despite it’s repeated and overwhelming practical failure) ignores one of the most basic aspects of the human condition.

As such, the idea of public policy based on social responsibility, rather than misleading conceptions of fairness, is both natural and rational. We are responsible because we are human. Society advances because each generation has a responsibility to give those who follow a better chance than we have had ourselves. When put in the context of the family unit this is taken as read, it’s completely natural. But to limit responsibility to our direct descendants is a logical fallacy because it is based on an artificial distinction.

The fact that someone is a blood relative of mine will do nothing to protect them from the effects of actions taken by countless millions of others or from winds of fortune of which I can neither conceive nor control. Rationally, the most effective way of ensuring a better future for our own descendants in the long term is to work towards a better society. Thus our natural responsibility to our own children and natural responsibility to society become one and the same.

Now the flaw in this argument is that humans are not always perfectly rational actors, we have irrational emotions and imperfect knowledge which often means we don’t make the rational choice (this is also the problem with the “invisible hand” theory). This is where government comes in. Government acts as a facilitator, enabling citizens to discharge their duty. National politics and democratic debate, although an imperfect means, at least give citizens a chance to pause and look at the societal picture.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the my welfare spending example. Government can never make welfare policy that is fair on both Mr A and Child B simultaneously on a micro level. But it can help both to fulfill their innate responsibility to society. Child B has a responsibility to contribute to society by getting an education and then a job. Government can facilitate this by, for example, investing in education (so that Child B can gain the skills necessary to contribute to the greatest extent of her ability) and creating an environment where business, charities and the public sector can grow (so that the opportunities will exist for her to put her education to good use. At the same time government can facilitate Mr A’s responsibility through taxation. In time it will facilitate Child B’s responsibility to future generations in the same way.

The political left have lost sight of this bigger picture. When we argue that the cuts are “unfair” we buy into the modern right’s fundamental failure to understand the nature of society. We’re scared to talk about responsibility, after being sold the fiction that appeals to social responsibility are political suicide. In fact, if sold right, social responsibility is political gold. Ideas like patriotism, community and national purpose should be the spiritual home of the left, yet Labour seems afraid to claim them. Not for nothing did JFK urge Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.

We support welfare, human rights, free healthcare, free education because – fundamentally – we believe that society advances when it co operates. We believe that, as citizens and as humans, we have a responsibility to advance society. And, while appeals to Aristotelian ethics may not play so well on the doorstep, perhaps a good start might be to suggest voters (and politicians) remember their humanity.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London

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16 Responses to “The foolishness of “fairness””

  1. Tafia says:

    People on benefits are not better of than working people – this is a myth that the tories have managed to get people to believe. When these massive benefit claims are looked at they invariably consist of huge housing benefits payments to private landlords – in short, multiple property owners are milking the benefits system and are little better than thieves. Also included is council tax benefit – yet the benefit claimant gets none of this.

    Other ‘adjustments’ to get to these ludicrous figures include – as I have mentioned – counting housing benefits paid to a benefit claimant, but exclude tax credits and other payments etc that working families receive.

    A single person on JSA for instance gets around 70 quid a week cash whether they live in a hostel or a Mayfair mansion and it’s the same set-up for family groupings. A benefit claimant gets the same cash-money in their hand irrespective of where they live – the real parasites are actually landlords and until mandatory rent controls are brought in then that will continue.

  2. fran says:

    So are we a “something for nothing ” society as Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont recently opined ?

  3. aragon says:

    The ‘left’ believes in collectivism, or doesn’t Queen Mary University teach Marx on it’s Politics course, and the Right in individualism, as evidenced by Liam Byrne who said the welfare cap was too high.

    “Ministers have bodged the rules so the cap won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare.”,_to_each_according_to_his_need

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (or needs) is a slogan popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875”

    Even monkeys understand fairness, a bar the author appears to fail.

    “determined the chimpanzees’ responses depended upon the strength of their social connections.”

    Of course the individualist ‘right’ plays down the value and role of social capital.

    Who is ‘We’ in the last paragraph (The ‘Right’? ROFL) , a recognition of how far to the right the Labour party has moved ?

    “a good start might be to suggest voters (and politicians) remember their humanity.”

    Or that we are primates.

    Or present arguments about social capital and collective action.

    What a dogs dinner of an article. It misattributes belief systems asserts a false premise on fairness, confuses a issue on the welfare cap and then asserts moral superiority of the author.

    I am not going to dissect the welfare issue here, but the authors views of fairness are individualistic almost Spinoza’s, contrast this with Marx and collective responsibilities.

    Aristotle and Hobbs, what no Rawls or Hayeck? No Burke or Spinoza? Certainly No Sandel, what money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets?

    Like every thing else fairness depends on context and the framing of the argument. And Sam accepts a right wing framing of the debate while blaming the left.

  4. Ex-Labour says:

    I can safely assume from the article that it is written from an ideologically left perspective so I will respond on that basis.

    In looking at culture in societies and the UK specifically, I’m sure you are aware of the work of Geert Hofstede and his social research into the nature of societies using his ‘Five Dimensions’. The Left consistently push us towards collective values and political policies which reflect this, but these are diametrically opposed to the findings of Hofstede. We are individualistic in nature, although we do recognise the concept of society and the benefits it brings, but our first thoughts are about ‘ME’. Only countries such as the US and Australia are more individualistic. Inherent in this is personal responsibility.

    Looking at the Power – Distance dimension, whilst we accept that we have inequalities within society we do value the concepts of fairness and equality and make efforts to ensure we achieve this via social mobility. The caveat here is that we also recognise that society will never be fair or equal and that everyone has a place in the pecking order but movement is possible and welcomed. Interestingly the higher social status individuals rate these values much higher than say the working class.

    Superficially this seems a contradiction, but contained within our concept of fairness and equality is the inherent assumption that everyone contributes to society to access the benefits from it. What we have today after many years of Labour government is a society where large parts of it have a ‘something for nothing’ attitude and encouraged by Labour have abdicated all personal responsibility. Every day we witness the feckless, feral and workshy take from the state on a massive scale and Philpot was a prime example. There seems to be little, if any, action by successive governments ever taken to stop this behaviour. Being individualistic but recognising the value in society we are prepared to make a contribution but there are limitations to our generosity particularly when we feel there is no positive change.

    Of course we should have a welfare system to help out Mr A if he is made redundant, but should it be a lifetime guarantee? Should he expect to be kept on the same income level forever? The answer of course is ‘no’. If we have a benefits system where it pays not to work then there is something seriously wrong and I’m afraid that’s what Labour and Brown in particular delivered. So IDS is attempting to make redress, and yes it’s a blunt tool in many respects, but like taxation there will be winners and losers. Unfortunately too many people on low and high incomes have been taxation losers under Labour, watching their hard earned cash go into an ever expanding welfare budget. So maybe “distributing some unfairness” back in favour of the working population is a good thing.

    Whilst you contend a sense of society is fundamental to human progression, I would contend that to benefit from society you must accept that you are required to contribute and be socially responsible. Equally the government should not micro manage our lives but set frameworks where we all contribute and all benefit. Like beauty, “fairness” is in the eye of the beholder and it’s time for the non-contributory members in our midst to have a makeover.

  5. BenM says:

    “Fairness” like the word “Freedom” is something to be very afraid of when thrown around by conservative politicians to justify the next half-baked poor-bashing rightwing policy.

  6. james says:

    @BenM – gosh what an erudite statement – I will desist from supporting my more left of centre yet more prudent (Local Labour) LD council right now you’ve said that.

    @ex-labour – of course you’re right up to a point – the thing that the left in this country will never grasp, particularly the Labour party, is that they are very scared and lazy people. They’re lazy in that they seem to think that election victories will just `fall into place` without the gravitas and political sweat and graft that goes with it and scared because they know within their heart of hearts that a lot of the bad things that went on are due to Labour. They would prefer to besmirch their opponents through stereotype and hollow thinking rather than judicial argument and facing people square on.

    They did some good things like NMW and LGBT rights to name but a few – yet when they came up to the scandinavian social democrat brick wall they crumbled.

    People on this posting may prattle on about things regarding `the poor` and yes there are many things working people have to complain about eg zero hours contracts and falling wages. Let’s be clear though the argument isn’t really about `this is the analysis that means Labour will make things better` it’s `that was the analysis – what are you going to do about it, who will pay, how will it be done fairly and why are you doing it?`

    The other problem they face is that the questions keep on coming. This is not 1997 when people just `trusted` oppositions they expect them to work for their vote.

    One final comment I’d make is that people on here seem to say `it’s only xxx % or only a minority that are the problem` – the problem is that the system had to be reformed come what may it’s just that Labour’s vested interests failed to do it. If Labour wants to embrace Scandinavian social democracy then let’s see it – stop being coy and scared and come out and tell the majority of people that work hard and struggle how it will assist them, what higher taxes they’ll need to pay, what responsibilities everyone will have to show, how they’ll have to publish their tax returns and how you have to give what you put in (ie Sweden). It’s the only way it will work. The problem is it’ll take a braver bigger man than Ed Miliband to make it happen.

  7. aragon says:

    I realise that Sam was trying to re-frame the debate but his rejection of fairness and embrace of JFK is more like Hobbes.

    Yes, many in the Labour leadership refuse to challenge the Tory framing of the debate (See Liam Byrne).


    “Government should be a facilitator, allowing citizens to discharge their intrinsic responsibility to society.”

    “Governments must be designed to protect the people from themselves.” – Hobbes (JFK?).

    (Sorry I missed the reference to Hayeck)

    “Individual wills are subordinate to the general (collective) will.” – Rousseau (or Aristotelian?).

    The cuts are unfair because they fall on the people with the least access to societies resources.

    Primitive societies are tribal and as we see from monkeys fairness is fundamental and social.

    We have a claim on societies resources by virtue of been born into society (proportionate to our needs), property rights and inheritance violate this principle.

    IDS uses the false premise that work is virtuosos and taxes pay for benefits and (as Sam identifies) unemployment is a lifestyle choice.

    I agree with Tafia, if we concentrate on the practical rather then the philosophy. The problem is the Rich not the Poor, as the Rich control much more of societies resources and this offends against fairness.

    A single person on JSA could not get housing benefit in a Mayfair Mansion as housing costs must be in the bottom half of the local rental market and appropriate to family size.

    Unemployment is not a lifestyle choice and JSA benefits are well below the amount needed for a basic participation in society.

    Children and the Disabled are treated slightly more generously, but still inadequately.


    Unemployment is imposed on people and that are prevented from contributing and reduced to existing on the margins of society.

    Assuming a right to life, can this be achieved without food or shelter, and if not shouldn’t society provide them from it’s collective natural resources which are vastly unfairly distributed by our current society.

    Out of work benefits are not generous!

  8. fran says:

    What I’m proposing is that the universal provision of social services is by far the most cost effective and efficient way of providing these. A proper progressive taxation system makes this proper and fair. A UK mired in trying to bail out the bankers and fraudsters in the financial services in the South of England has lost all sight of important things and the ability to properly provide social services. The Labour Party has abandoned everything it ever stood for – including a progressive taxation system – and is presently fully involved in a national plot to help the Tories save the financiers of the UK while the rest of us are paying for this. Socially progressive policies IE Fair policies should be distributed horizontally rather than vertically to promote social cohesion and equality. Of course it is all political because many of those non-contributors are pensioners but who is going to bring that up when it’s much easier to take a swipe at a family on benefit. That is why the universal principle is so important and one that the Labour Party should align itself with IMO. When we dilute the principle thee really is no saying where it will all end or which group will be targeted next. That’s why, as a Scot, I am questioning the Scottish Labour Leader’s position on and commitment to ending universal benefits.

  9. bob says:

    Ben M: you have no concept of poor, go to other countries such as South Sudan, Congo, and other places and see people who truly have nothing. In this country the concept of ‘poor’ is relative to the society we live in. I will only recognise someone who is poor when they cannot buy any essentials for living ie, food water heating plus rent/mortgage and taxes. Anything else is in effect a luxury and that includes cigarettes alcohol mobile phones computers x box and satellite/cable TV and most importantly children.

  10. BenM says:

    “I will only recognise someone who is poor when they cannot buy any essentials for living ie, food water heating plus rent/mortgage and taxes”

    0.5M relying on foodbanks and rising.

    I’m not surprised a Tory doesn’t care about this utter Tory driven scandal.

    I think you’ll find come 2015 a lot of British people do though.

  11. BenM says:


    “We are individualistic in nature”

    That’s your assertion without any basis in fact and flying in the face of a mountain of evidence and studies the other way (as well as the evidence of your own eyes if only you’d open them).

    You often see this kind of cognitive dissonance in people who claim to have moved to the the Right of the political spectrum from the Left. A kind of blinkered confirmation bias (probably from reading the Daily Mail too much).

  12. james says:

    @bob – depends really – if you really want a job a mobile phone and pc (or access to the latter) is very important nowadays. I wouldn’t deny someone working hard to get a job a swift half once a week! Indeed, I’ve bought a few pints in my time for someone in that position on a Friday night – fully repaid once he got a job!

    @fran – the universal priniciple is fine yet the left never listen – to have universality (ie progressive taxation or in reality relatively high taxation for ordinary workers (45%ish in Denmark for the average worker) you need to then set up the apparatus for wealth transfers based on need or incomes via health services etc. To ensure that those who work the hardest or employ the right attitudes and behaviours you then have to have higher cultural conformity, highly intrusive welfare state that compels people to work that can work and tax transparency even of that ordinary worker.

    Why? To ensure that the `resentment of the middle` is kept in check so that there’s a fair (that word again) society.

    The other thing you have to do is ensure a hawk-eyed view on deficits – the higher the taxes the less leeway you have to raise finances from people thus the requirement to balance books. Also, the higher the taxation the more people take a stern view of their own government’s failures lest they get turfed out of power.

    Labour failed to balance books, keep a tight control of spending, didn’t reform welfare, didn’t rein in personal debt under Blair – why should it do it if Ed Miliband was in charge?

  13. Ex-Labour says:


    Are you an idiot ? I suspect you are because you clearly have not read (or maybe understood) my comment. Or perhaps you are the typical Stalinist Leftard who cant see beyond your own prejudice ?

    I clearly referenced the work of Professor Geert Hofstede who carried out one of the largest international studies on national societal cultural traits and it is regarded as a seminal work in the field of social science and organisational behaviour. In fact I was taught it at university by a bunch of Leftards, so they obviously value it.

    Here’s the link. Go educate yourself…..

  14. Ex-Labour says:


    What you advocate is just the nanny state that Labour tried to create. Is being made redundant the signal to say well that’s me done the state can keep me from now on ? What if we all took this attitude ? Where would the precious Welfare state be then ? What I suggested is that we support people at their financial level for a period of time allowing them space to get themselves back into the work place. But supporting them ad-infinitum has left us with the horrendous welfare bill we have today.

    You also say that welfare payments are not generous. The problem is that there is so much you can claim for it mounts up to a serious amount of money. Plus of course the system is open to so much abuse its unbelievable – I know I see it everyday and the welfare “clients” openly admit to doing it, they think its clever !!

    When will the Left wake up to the fact that it is NOT the state’s money, it is mine and yours.

  15. aragon says:


    Now it’s a welfare state and Britain’s is one of the least generous in Europe.

    Welfare clients are just making the most of the situation they find themselves and which is beyond their control. No different from other successful people in society.

    I think you will find it is the ‘Rich (0.1%)’ who have all the money (wealth) and society would be much more successful if wealth was more evenly distributed.

    In fact the current crisis is about how much can the ‘rich’ can extract from society, through property, energy, privatised public infrastructure, monopolies etc.

  16. Ex-labour says:


    You just made my point by saying “beyond their control” which is making excuses. We have all found ourselves in difficult situations throughout our lives but you have to work through them, giving up and abdicating responsibility seems to be the ” in thing ” in today’s world.

    Really disappointed also to see that you are another of the left which seems to advocate defrauding the state by claimants, and you also have the tired Labour mantra on the wealthy.

    Remember it’s OUR MONEY not the states !!

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