Wednesday, 26 August 2015

On Fairness & Equality

What's the difference between a parsnip and fairness? Their differences are too numerous to mention, but here's just one: Everyone agrees what a parsnip is without necessarily agreeing that they like it, whereas everyone likes fairness without necessarily agreeing what it is.

When I was a boy and my parents had company I would often want to stay up late to join in the merriment. My parents, knowing better, would still send me to bed if I had school in the morning. I would cry foul that their decision wasn't 'fair'. When children grow up into adults they understand more clearly what fairness means, and that decisions made on our behalf for our benefit are not as unfair as they seem. Sadly, when adults become politicians they often forget many of the things they learned about fairness. What they actually do is oscillate between two different types of fairness - the Marxist type and the Aristotelian type.

Just about everyone knows the Marxist conception of fairness, based on the maxim "To each according to his need, from each according to his ability.", where people can justifiably be treated unequally to bring about a perceived 'fair' outcome. And most people know the Aristotelian conception of fairness, which is a principle of proportionality about the need to treat equals with full equality when required, but also unequals unequally when required too.

In life we sometimes treat people unequally in order to achieve a more equal (i.e. perceived fairer) outcome. Other times we treat people equally in order to achieve a perceived fairer outcome even if that outcome produces less equal outcomes. Call the first one A} and the second one B}. An example of A} is progressive income tax. Earners are not treated equally in the tax system but the intention is to equalise society slightly more than it is by having higher earners contributing proportionally more tax. An example of B} is sport. A referee applies the same rules to both football teams (equality) even though it's more likely that the better team will win (less equal outcome).
When it comes to sport we are all pretty much agreed. If Real Madrid played Norwich in the European Cup they probably would win. A fair referee would adopt the Aristotelian type of fairness and treat both teams equally in terms of the rules. An unfair referee might adopt a Marxist type fairness and make biased decisions in favour of Norwich to give them a better chance of winning* .But I think the majority of fair-minded people are glad that sport is conducted under the Aristotelian type of fairness and not the Marxist one.
But when it comes to income tax we are not all agreed. Some people take a more Marxist view of fairness and want high and low earners treated unequally to bring about a fairer society, whereas some people would prefer an 'all people equally' Aristotelian approach which confers a flat rate of tax on everyone. And it’s not just income tax – there are many others socio-political issues about which people regularly disagree regarding fairness: the minimum wage, positive discrimination, drug use, education, and so on.

The problem that underpins this situation in politics is that most leading politicians are slightly more hamstrung because they work on the basis of "That which is good for vote-winning is a good model for fairness" - which means they apply the Marxist type and the Aristotelian type of fairness for their convenience, often inconsistently.

It’s exasperating to keep hearing politicians saying they want a 'fair' welfare system or a 'fair' pension system or a 'fair' tax system, without giving even the slightest elaboration on what they mean by fair. Is something 'fair' if the process by which it arrived is fair? Or is fairness an equitable distribution of something? If a politician fails to explain what he means by 'fair' his statement is ambiguous to the point of being facile.
They often mean equitable distributions when they talk of fairness - but an inequitable distribution need not be unfair. Take a factory as a good example: a floor worker, a supervisor, a manager and a company director have an inequitable distribution of the business's money but that doesn't make their salary unfair. Equally, stealing from the business in order to give everyone a fair slice of the pie would be an equitable distribution but the process by which it arrived is unfair.

They also often mean inequitable distributions when they talk of fairness - but an equitable distribution need not be unfair either. Take university education as an example. Cambridge and Oxford universities are the seat of academic excellence in the UK. The statistics show that only 10% of UK pupils are privately educated yet around 50% of Cambridge and Oxford graduates are privately educated. Politicians on the left continually bemoan this 'unfairness'. They are confused. A scholastic system is fair if results match ability, hard work and diligence. If Cambridge and Oxford are trying to attract the most academically gifted students in the country, and if 50% of the most academically gifted students in the country are in private schools, then Cambridge and Oxford's admission policy is completely fair.
Because of the ambiguity regarding fairness, politicians switch back and forth from A} an “equal to achieve an unequal outcome” meaning (like sport) and B} an “unequal to achieve an equal outcome” meaning (like progressive income tax), knowing they can get away with it because most people won’t notice. Sadly, there are plenty of instances of A} that should be a B}, and B} that should be an A}.

Here are some examples where politicians or the authorities adopt a Marxist conception of fairness when they should be adopting an Aristotelian concept, and vice-versa. The mansion tax, the minimum wage and positive discrimination are all examples where an Aristotelian conception of fairness would be better employed instead of the Marxist conception that is usually employed. People with mansions should be treated equally with regard to tax on their property but instead they are penalised unfairly. People in the labour market should have an opportunity to work commensurate with the value of their labour, but instead the imposition of a minimum wage unfairly precludes many low-skilled workers from employment. Positive discrimination laws artificially smooth the path for some by artificially disadvantaging others.
On the other hand there are examples where the Marxist conception of fairness would be better employed instead of the Aristotelian conception that is usually employed. Stop and search regulations are good cases in point. The authorities treat people far too equally here when instead they should be targeting people who have a greater probability of being the people actually committing the crimes.

Generally, this notion of equality has a lot to answer for, because humans are not equal. For a start there is the key differences between women and men, there is the difference between those who try hard and those who do not; there are differences in people's genetics, family background, upbringing, geography, natural talents, mental capacity, and so on. One also mustn't forget that nature is not very democratic at all. When it comes to health, looks, size, shape, talents, intelligence, sensory apparatus, opportunity and background - there is a notable difference in all of these human qualities in each of us, as nature pays no regard to democracy.

Not only do too many of our politicians hyper-inflate the notion of equality - they also pick and choose which conceptions of fairness they want to use in a way that best enhances their popularity and reputation. And that's not 'fair' on the general public at all.
* Sometimes in sport there is handicapping. In horse racing, handicaps are races which make more equal horses of varying levels of ability. The idea is that the better horses in the race carry more weight than the poorer horses, giving a more equal chance of slower horses winning, if they all run to the best of their ability. But handicapping aside I think the majority of fair-minded people are glad that sport is conducted under the Aristotelian type of fairness.