Some time ago, actually it was a long time ago when I was in my early teens, someone close to me bought a table. It was an early flat pack variety. It came with a top and four legs. He followed the instructions to the letter screwing the legs into the top. But when he had completed it the table wobbled. One leg he explained was shorter than the other three; so he sawed a bit from each of the other legs. The table wobbled. One leg, he explained, was longer than the other three. So, he sawed a bit off. The table wobbled. He went on cutting the legs, but the table continued to wobble. Cut, cut, cut! By this time he had convinced himself there was no alternative to it. He ended up with a very low table indeed, supported by four very stumpy legs and a bit of cardboard placed under one of them to stop it wobbling on the uneven floor.
Mr Duncan-Smith argues that we need a 1% cap on benefits to be 'fair to average earners'. Average earners have seen their incomes rise by less than inflation whilst benefits have increased in line with inflation. That he says is unfair. One leg is too long, so he is going to cut a bit off. The table will of course continue to wobble. And it will wobble because the floor is uneven. The reason this time is that what he thinks is a separate leg isn't separate at all. It is a kind of category mistake. It is a neat category, those on benefits, as if they are a different kind of human being.
Cutting benefits in this way will simply drive many hard working families deeper into poverty. Five million workers receive less than a subsistence wage. In the longer term, cutting benefits is counter productive. The cycle of poverty and disease, particularly child poverty, simply adds to the burden of health costs. It is less than fair because it makes the poorest pay disproportionately for the financial mess they had no hand in creating. They are paying through cuts in benefits and cuts in services upon which they rely the most. The government are missing the point about fairness, and the poorest are paying for the government's lack of policy to stimulate growth, get Britain working and cut the deficit. That is unfair.
Nearly 7 million working-age adults forming 3.6 million families in the UK are living in extreme financial stress. They have no savings, no equity in their homes and they struggle to feed their families. Furthermore the poorest 10% have seen their incomes fall in real terms for over a decade. This contrasts with the richest 10% who have seen their incomes rise in real terms. Now that is unfair. The gap between rich and poor is ever wider. Having given a break to the rich by cutting top rate tax, it is disingenuous for the government to now justify a cap on benefits by arguing for fairness.
There is another problem with the argument about fairness. It just doesn't stack up. Mr Duncan-Smith gets his maths wrong again. John Leech, the Liberal Democrat MP for Manchester Withington got it absolutely right in the parliamentary debate. It is unfair, he said, to equate a 1% limit on benefits worth less than £100 a week with a 1% pay rise for someone on a salary of £25,000 a year. Some Liberal Democrats, such as Charles Kennedy, have vowed to continue to fight this "divisive and unfair policy". If they do so, they deserve credit and support for that.
Most of those receiving benefits are in work, and most of them also have received less than inflation increases in earnings. They too have been squeezed by the recession, and now the government wants to squeeze them further.
Mr Duncan-Smith prefers a disingenuous and divisive comparison. It fits the 'shirker' and 'striver' categorisation, which Mr Vince Cable finds distasteful. It is wrong. it is unethical. It is a bad policy and a bad argument.