Friday, 15 March 2013

Why the government fails to understand 'fairness'.

Why does the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr Ian Duncan Smith get the concept of 'fairness' so wrong? All his policy initiatives he claims are based on fairness. There is little wonder then that he gets so upset when told his policies are not simply unfair but unethical. Some have described them as immoral because of the disproportionate effect on the poorest. It hits him where it hurts, in his softer moral underbelly. Why then does Mr Duncan Smith and his colleagues get it so wrong? I think the answer lies in a common philosophical mistake; the notion that it is ethical to treat people 'equally'.

On so many policies we are asked to compare one group with another. For example, for the 'bedroom tax' we are told it is 'unfair' that differences should exist between those in the private rented housing and in social housing. The problem with this kind of proposition is that it misunderstands 'fairness'. It confuses  'treating people the same' with 'treating people fairly'. The two  are not the same proposition at all.

There is a regularly used example in teaching. I ask the group to tell me whether the statement 'all people are equal' is 'good'. Most often we start with the class saying it is 'good'. But then I point out that we are not equal. We differ in socio-economic condition; we differ in a whole variety of ways. And then we agree that whatever we mean by 'equality' it isn't that people are or should be the 'same'.

The next question we deal with is whether 'all people should be treated equally' is a good statement. Again after discussion we find the concept isn't as good as it sounds. If we are not the same, then how can it be good to treat us as if we were? It is a recipe for unfairness, and this is the problem Mr Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues fail to appreciate. It is why they have to rush in with concessions and changes in the criteria.

So now, for the 'bedroom tax', we have concessions for those in the armed services or for those fostering. Once the dam is breached it is difficult to hold the line, because there are equally deserving exceptions. Any policy that treats people fairly will seek to account for circumstances. But if the policy is simply to make cuts in spending, taking circumstances into account is unlikely to be a priority. Circumstances requires administration and assessment which costs money.

And here is the problem. The coalitions's policies of cuts in benefits are indiscriminate, which is why they are more likely than not to be unfair, or have unfair outcomes; and it is outcome that matters. If the impact of a policy is likely to be disproportionate on some, then it clearly cannot be fair unless there is a good justification for it.

I cannot see much justification for making the poorest poorer, or making them homeless because they have a 'spare room'. It isn't just unfair, it is cruel and heartless. And let's be aware that the 'bedroom tax' isn't simply something on paper. It is real and it will affect real people and families. It reduces the amount they have to spend on food and heating and other necessities. This is why many call it a tax. Pedantic argument about it doesn't address its unfairness.

If Mr Duncan Smith is really so concerned with fairness, then he would do well to look elsewhere for the causes of  unfairness in our society. Making the poorest in social housing pay a price for the shortage of social housing stock fails to address the real cause of any unfairness in allocation of housing.

By their own calculations the Department of Work and Pensions knows that there is a mismatch in the numbers of houses available and those who are likely to have to move from their social housing as a result of the 'bedroom tax'.  So it cannot solve the problem of unfairness in distribution; that some families are living in overcrowded conditions whilst others have spare rooms. You cannot do a direct swap.  It is simply misdirecting the public to argue otherwise. I wouldn't say it was a lie, but it is certainly a deceit.

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