Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Fairness cuts both ways.

There is a link between the Occupy St Paul's movement (or stasis) benefit cheats and MPs expenses. The public are angry about cheating.

Here’s how the idea appeared in Ed Miliband’s party conference speech: “The banking crisis, MPs’ expenses, journalists hacking phones. From them all a something-for-nothing culture ... you know what your values are ... reward linked to effort. Something for something.”

St Paul put in simply in his letter to the Thessalonians: He who will not work; neither shall he eat.

And here’s how the same thought appeared in David Cameron’s speech: “Real fairness isn’t just about what the State spends. It’s about the link between what you put in and what you get out ... Under Labour they got something for nothing. With us they’ll only get something if they give something.”

The idea that underpinned both speeches was simple. Our demand for fairness is not a concept developed by philosophers, it is an observation made by scientists. The basis of human (and indeed, all animal) co-operation is reciprocation. You do something for me, I do something for you in return. We have evolved as beings who insist that others return our favors, that we get something for something.

And we get angry when we feel we are being deceived. There has been a lot of talk about public sympathy for the so-called “spirit of St Paul’s”. The idea is that voters share the protesters’ fury that a small group of bankers and chief executives seem to be paying themselves vast salaries out of all proportion to their contribution to the community. This is quite true. The fury is there. But it isn’t just about rich people. It is about anyone who gets something out without putting in the same amount. The feeling is not, therefore, a sort of new rising left-wing revolution against capitalism. That’s a misunderstanding. It is one part of the same populist anger that is commonly expressed about criminals, welfare fraudsters and bogus asylum seekers.

One of the things voters meant when they said that it was time for a change was that they (the decent hard-working people, and everyone thinks they are one of those) believed they were putting in much more than they were getting out and that this had to stop. They feel that the rewards that should be theirs are being given to others who don’t work as hard, and that the State gives them a bad deal, taking their tax and giving them poor services in return. Mr Cameron has to show that he knows that this is what he was elected to deal with. And Mr Miliband has to show that he can respond.

The power of the “no more something for nothing” message is obvious. Unfortunately, so are the political problems that come with it. We have evolved to co-operate, but also (as I have been posting) to cheat. Humans want, if they can, to see if they can get more out than they put in. And they want to stop others doing the same. As a result we have also evolved a strong aversion to cheating and a strong sense that we are being cheated. The demand for fairness may, therefore, be impossible to satisfy. The instinct that tells us that things are not fair may be as strong as the instinct to co-operate, and as ingrained.

This provides Mr Cameron with a serious difficulty. The very nature of our idea of fairness may mean that his policy response won’t seem fair enough. And the demand for fairness will persist even if it isn’t reasonable. As a Conservative, Mr Cameron also has the problem that he has to tackle unfair reward at the top, something voters think he doesn’t want to do, and which is tricky to achieve. But his big advantage is that when asked which party they most associate with tackling the something-for-nothing culture, voters overwhelmingly name the Tories.

That is the challenge for Mr Miliband. This weekend he associated himself with the St Paul’s protesters, swapping Tony Blair’s big tent for a campsite of small ones. He will not win the fairness battle by doing this, any more than by dividing companies into producers and predators. The issue of power and rewards for top people is important but only a part of fairness, a part where Labour is already relatively strong. It is on crime, welfare fraud, the deal for taxpayers and immigration, the other big fairness issues, that Mr Miliband needs to concentrate. To win on fairness he will have to get far tougher on these issues, and talk about little else. And this is something that runs counter to his instincts.

(adapted from Daniel Finklestein in the Times.)

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