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.