In a finite world with finite resources, surely the only concept of fairness that really matters is one of equitable distribution of those resources and the incomes that lay claim to those resources.
If resources were infinite, one could imagine a situation where even the poorest could live comfortably, the middle classes could live very comfortably and the richest could live extravagantly. This is not the case. Some people having too much means, very directly, that others have too little.
And yet it has become fashionable in the past thirty years to think that we can forget about greater equality of outcomes. Mainstream politics in the UK has largely come to believe that we need only concern ourselves with equality of opportunity, and its allied concept social mobility, and all will be well. This is a very limited and depressing view of the world.
If one person advances, then presumably someone else has to make way, move sideways or move down. Do we really want to live in a permanent war of all against all? For a start, it’s all a bit stressful.
On a more practical level – if everyone is either a lawyer or is training to be a surgeon, who will drive the trains and teach the children? And what happens to those who, for whatever reason, fail to advance in the way we expect? Do we put them in a special camp?
An obsession with equality of opportunity and social mobility is simply a by-product of inequality – a diversion at best and, at worst, an excuse to do nothing at all. It embraces the injustice of inequality and leaves it preserved in aspic. As the Daily Telegraph columnist, Daniel Knowles, recently commented ‘equality of opportunity’ was a buzzword – or, more accurately, a buzz-term – to avoid talking about inequality of income.
So, if equality of opportunity and social mobility are a busted flush and cannot deliver ‘The Good Society’, what can?
It’s quite simple, we develop a progressive politics that rejects the paralysed thinking of the past 30 years – a politics that is centrally committed to re-distributing income from rich to poor. This re-distribution can either be achieved by addressing pay differentials in the workplace or by traditional tax and spend methods – or, more probably, by a combination of both.
If progressive politics is not centrally concerned with re-distributing income from rich to poor, then, really, what on earth is it for? We don’t need a form of progressive politics that is not centrally concerned with re-distributing income from rich to poor – we already have that sort of politics – it’s called right-wing politics and it’s failing us badly.
Evidence shows that by compressing income gaps, many good things follow. We will enjoy better health and suffer fewer social problems. We will trust each other more and participate more freely in community life. We also improve our chances of a transition to a more sustainable economic model.
Crucially, the quality of our social relations will improve. We will live lives more recognisable to each other. We will attend similar schools and use similar hospitals. We will frequent similar social spaces. We will hold our heads up high and look each other in the eye more easily. We will feel more secure in ourselves and, correspondingly, feel less need to look down – and kick down – on others to shore up our own social status.
We will enthuse about people’s desires to become ambulance drivers and office administrators and not sneer about why they are not striving to be accountants, bankers, pop stars or footballers. The word “chav” will no longer be used as a term of class abuse.
Whilst greater equality will benefit those on lower and middle incomes the most, it will also be fairer to the better off. We will free them from the need to pay for private health and private education – and we can relieve them of the cost of security gates and alarm systems – and free them from paying daft amounts of money to drive ridiculous tank-like cars with embarrassing names like Defender, Warrior or Shogun.
Currently the rich are paying for all this featherbedding and security – and still they will die younger than their counterparts in more equal societies and have worse mental health along the way. Meanwhile their children are more likely to get obese and become teen parents than their peers in Canada, Germany or Sweden. Where is the fairness in that? Never mind the ‘big society’, welcome to the ‘bad society’.
Perhaps every generation thinks this but it really does seem to me that we have reached something of a fork in the road. Down one road we can pursue the growth-plus-inequality paradigm (the current system) and down the other we can explore the emerging alternative which we might call the sustainability-plus-equality paradigm.
In terms of responsibility, particularly global responsibility, it seems obvious that the current system is grossly irresponsible. When we are clearly running up against planetary limits it is surely criminal to propose that we continue with a growth model that uses up resources at an ever faster rate and then distributes income very badly within nations and between the northern and southern hemispheres.
Put simply, we are currently being asked to believe that techno-fix is going to ensure that we can continue to grow the economic pie ever larger such that everyone is provided for whilst the planet’s resources are safeguarded. This seems fanciful in the extreme and if not a little arrogant.
At the same time we know from The Spirit Level and other sources, that in the developed world we are reaching the end of what economic growth can do for us. We know that our life expectancy and levels of happiness are now little affected by increases in national wealth.
This actually offers us a great opportunity. If we know that our well-being is closely related to the income distribution within societies but not so much related to the overall wealth of those societies then that is a major pointer towards a better future. We don’t have to bake a bigger pie. We just need to distribute the pie more evenly between ourselves.
This re-distribution needs to take place on two levels, within nations and between hemispheres. Greater equality in only one hemisphere would be no victory at all. The poorer developing nations of the southern hemisphere still need economic growth in many places to reach a decent standard of living. The richer developed nations of the northern hemisphere do not. Significant transfers of income need to be made from the surplus-rich north to the depleted south.
For that to happen, greater equality is urgently needed in the developed northern nations. More equal developed nations tend to be better global citizens – from attitudes to re-cycling to generosity in overseas aid, from signing up to environmental treaties through to being less militaristic.
A more equal northern hemisphere is a vital plank of global progress. So a more equal UK is not only fair for the citizens of the UK, it will also allow us to better discharge our responsibilities to the rest of the world.