All’s fair?

Fairness is big right now. Today the Deputy Prime Minister announced a ‘fairness premium’ to help disadvantaged children through school claiming that “true fairness is about the distribution of chances, not the distribution of cash.”

David Cameron also made a big deal about fairness in his speech to the conservative conference, saying that, “fairness means giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave.”

Fair enough, few among us would argue that things should be more unfair. But fairness is not a fact, it’s a judgement.

What do people deserve? And what is a fair distribution of chances? Do people deserve to be born into a particular social economic? Do they deserve to be born with greater or lesser capacities?

A liberal commitment to fairness as a form of distributional justice tends to demand a fairly radical re-ordering of society to ensure true equality of opportunity (see Rawls’ A Theory of Justice for example). Conservatives have tended to resist this on the basis that the social (and economic) consequences of trying to iron out all these inequalities are too detrimental to society as a whole, in other words, general utility, fairness to the group trumps fairness to individuals.

So while the immediate politics of Clegg and Cameron’s statements run in the same direction: fairness is not just about giving people the same level of welfare pay out, the underlying philosophies are quite different. There are good arguments for each conception of fairness (and indeed many others), but these arguments need to be made.

The challenge for this government is to find a political programme that reconciles liberal and conservative notions of fairness. Unless it does so fairness as a political slogan sounds good, but means little.