Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fairness and the Big Society

I watched a debate on BBC4 last night about Fairness and the Big Society. It was conducted at the Royal Institution and moderated by Michael Sandel, the Harvard Professor.

The audience, being a BBC audience, was packed with left-wing students, which rather threw Sandel when they voted en masse against a communitarian solution to fairness - in reality they were voting against anything associated with the Tories.

However, some interesting points. A large number of people felt that fairness equated with equality. Well, it may do, but life is unfair. We are not all born equal, except in the sight of God. We are all born with natural talents. However hard I try I will never make a good carpenter or be able to play football for anything better than a pub team.

The question was posed as to whether it was fair that Wayne Rooney should make £11.2 million a year for playing football while a care worker has to make do on £12,000 a year. The point was made that there is a market out there for footballers and players are paid what the market will bear. It's all a question of supply and demand. Very few people can do what Wayne Rooney can do and people are willing to pay and watch it. On the other hand hundreds of thousands can do a care workers job and if she doesn't like her job there is no shortage of people willing to fill her shoes.

Equality of opportunity is one thing that most agree on and interestingly an overwhelming majority of the audience felt that they were either doing better than their parents or expected to do so. Despite this the UK is supposed to have less social mobility than most other OECD countries even including the USA. Denmark is held up as the paragon of social mobility (though the standard rate of income tax there is 52%). Certainly class and the public school system have in the past been a barrier to social mobility, but there is a problem in abolishing privilege: social mobility involves some moving down as well as some moving up. People tend to be reluctant to let their children suffer. It is noticeable that among left-wing politicians, just as much as among those on the right that nepotism abounds. Most successful actors are left-wing. Take the Redgraves. They have been called Trotskyites, yet if you are a Redgrave family member you find it easy to be a thespian. Inherited talent or nepotism? When you see Harley street doctors making it easy for their sons to follow them in the profession, ask the same question.

There is a hint of left-wing envy and snobbery about the whole debate. We live in an unfair world, because we are not all born equal and unequal things happen to us. To suggest that everybody ought to go to university just because that is what the rich do is nonsense. They have even dumbed down university courses to make it possible. An academic education is appropriate for academics but not for carpenters. I am all for everybody being educated to the limits of their ability, but to pretend that that means living away from home for three years, attending lectures and reading books is plain silly. For most, an apprenticeship is more appropriate. That is nothing to look down on. My most revered scientist, Edward Jenner, was apprenticed to a barber surgeon from the age of 13.

I respect my gardener because he grows beautiful camellias for me, my window cleaner because he reaches the parts that I cannot, my odd-job man because he replaced my damaged locks, the girl on the supermarket check-out because she had a cheerful word and was patient with me while I packed my bags, my patients because they make me feel useful and the homeless men who come to our church for food and clothing because they are human beings made in the image of God.

"From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs" is a slogan of Karl Marx, which is all very well in theory but in real life, it cannot be enforced by compulsion and no-one adopts it voluntarily. St Paul wrote "He who will not work, neither shall he eat." But even societies that start out with such an ideal find themselves soft-hearted when it comes to denying a beggar despite warnings that the money will go to drug dealers.

Perhaps we have to accept that life is unfair and read every situation as it comes along in a pragmatic way. I can't imagine what I would do with £11.2 million a year but I would certainly find it difficult to manage on £12,000. Income tax at 52% would make me think of emigrating, no matter how good the health service.

There is a famous science fiction story which envisioned a society where everyone was made to be equal. The bright had to wear headphones that played weird noises in their ears to stop them concentrating. The strong had to wear 40 pound bags on their backs to handicap them. It was an equal society but unfair to the talented.

I should like to see a society where everyone was enabled to fulfill their talents in meaningful work and where people were valued as people. No-one can help being born blind or deaf and they shouldn't be disrespected because of it. They should be helped to make the most of what they have. Wayne Rooney was born with a certain agility and dexterousness. No doubt he is such a good footballer because he has applied himself to training and practice, though even with that application I could never play professional football. Nevertheless, much as I approve of his ability to capitalize on his talent I believe he has a responsibility to the society that has nurtured him. Sportsmen have a great rewards and opportunities; they should use their good fortune for the common good. It used to be called Noblesse Oblige.


Burke said...

People deal by trade or by force like animals. The "fairness" of today's egalitariand is just another of their endless rationalizations for practicing the latter.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Dr. H. I'd like to think most people understand these concepts but I don't think that's the case...and it's getting worse, unfortunately. ~Patti

Anonymous said...

Your position is based on the fallacious assumption that life is a zero-sum game; that in order for some to prosper, others must sacrifice. This is one of the great intellectual mistakes made by the left, and the siren song of the welfare state. But economics do not work that way. Wealth can be created where none existed before, and this benefits all. There is no other explanation for the explosion in the standard of living over the past century. When people are left alone to pursue their ambitions and to voluntarily engage with one another, prosperity is maximized for all. When wealth is forcibly redistributed it discourages the very people who create it and all (except those who make the rules) suffer. Equality of opportunity is achieved through respect of each individual's natural right to life, liberty and property.

Terry Hamblin said...

I would certainly not categorize myself as of the left, nor do I hold to the idea of the zero sum game. Of course, private enterprise must be allowed to flourish. It is in the self interest of the wealthy to support the less able, though. As H. Belloc put it, "It is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan."