Lost in the moral maze
It’s easy to frame conceptual debates about fairness and equality as a binary choice between two extremes — unbridled capitalism on one hand, or equal-outcome communism on the other.
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It’s easy to frame conceptual debates about fairness and equality as a binary choice between two extremes — unbridled capitalism on one hand, or equal-outcome communism on the other. Of course, we all know that the details of real-world policy choices are debated in the middle ground. Connecting the dots between theory and practice is challenging. This week’s newsletter takes a look at a recent example of this problem.
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Lost in the moral maze
It posed some important and timely questions. Is it morally acceptable for millions of people in a rich country like the UK to rely on charity to feed and clothe their children? Given huge levels of wealth inequality, should the rich pay more to help the poor, or is it unfair (and bad for economic growth) to increase taxes on those who have earned it? Is wealth inherently immoral?
The panel (Anne McElvoy and Tim Stanley broadly on the right, Ash Sarkar and Giles Fraser broadly on the left) grappled with these questions in conversation with four expert witnesses (similarly balanced between left-wing and right-wing perspectives).
As you might expect, the discussion covered a lot of ground. And predictable fault lines emerged. There was broad agreement about the urgent need to tackle poverty, especially in the context of the rising cost of living. But there was no consensus about whether inequality was part of the problem or, by contrast, was an inevitable and even desirable feature of an economy that rewards ‘merit’ in pursuit of growth and prosperity.
The usual critiques were made of inequality. It is inherently immoral; extreme wealth is morally corrosive; inequality creates divided and dysfunctional societies in which people’s social status are a function of their economic position; the wealth of some is in some ways a root cause of the poverty of others. None of these arguments were persuasive to the expert witnesses and panellists on the right (although it was conceded that it has become too easy to accumulate and hold onto wealth, that it should not be possible to use wealth to buy political influence, and that people should be morally equal even if they are not economically equal).
All in all, it was a reasonable discussion, but it concluded predictably, without consensus. Everyone recognises that poverty is a blight on society and that there is an overwhelming moral case to tackle it, to say nothing of the economic, social and political arguments. But the question of whether or not we should tackle inequality divides people along entrenched fault lines.
Asking a different question might elicit a different answer. Instead of asking whether inequality itself is unfair, why not ask whether it is fair that people have dramatically different life chances and opportunities, because of the unequal circumstances into which they are born?
Framing inequality in terms of its impact on opportunity is a powerful way of persuading those on the right of politics that action needs to be taken to reduce inequality. Boris Johnson said in his party conference speech last year that “it is our mission as conservatives to promote opportunity”.
In 2020, More in Common’s report, Britain’s Choice, concluded that people can come together around the goal of building a fair society: “most believe that the economy does not afford enough opportunity for those who work hard and want to get ahead… [and] integrate a belief in personal responsibility [with] the need to do more to reduce inequality.”
We found this to be true when we ran our own polling in April. A particularly striking finding was the strong consensus about the need to reduce inequality in order to build a society of fairer opportunities, with 83 per cent of the British public wanting to reduce inequality in British society. Even Conservative voters preferred reducing inequality to letting the market dictate outcomes by a factor of more than two to one.
Talking about opportunity helps us to move on from the tired two-tone debate about free markets versus equal outcomes. Bear in mind that we’re not talking here about timid attempts to promote opportunity by tinkering around the edges. We’re talking about taking radical steps to reduce inequality, based on the recognition that this is the only way to give everyone fair opportunities in life. This means, for example, fixing broken markets in terms of low-paid and insecure work and the cost of living (food and fuel but also housing, childcare, social care and so on).
People from across the political divide can agree that current levels of inequality are too high because they prevent people from having fair opportunities. Let’s shout the argument out loud and let’s win it.
Poll of the week
What are the best arguments that you have seen for reducing inequality?
Lots of people have made lots of arguments over the years for reducing inequality. Some have been more successful than others, especially at convincing people with different opinions and perspectives. What are the best examples that you have seen, and why?
Last week we asked how we can have a more grown-up conversation about tax. Thank you for so many detailed suggestions. Rather than attempting to summarise them, you can read them in full here.
Reads of the week
“The transition to a net zero economy raises questions about when costs should be paid, and by whom.” The Social Market Foundation and Intergenerational Foundation have published a joint report on future generations and the net zero transition, arguing that policy assumptions about future generations and net zero should be open to public debate.
“Instead of angry debates and Twitter pile-ons, the public want a ‘live and let live’ approach to trans people, and case-by-case solutions, not blanket policies”. More In Common have published new polling data about public attitudes to gender identity.
“Two or three kids in a class of 30 are self-harming because they are so anxious about their living situation, about whether their parents can pay the bills or whether they are going to be able to have a shower that night.” Shocking findings from the Childhood Trust about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on the mental health of British children.
“If you’re drinking with your manager [after work] and another person is going home after work, who is going to get the promotion?” A survey from the Chartered Management Institute finds that Black and Asian workers are held back at work by bias.
Fairness Foundation updates
There’s a new addition to our website resources page for partner organisations: a database of relevant third-party publications. They are tagged by our focus issues and by whether they cover public attitudes and/or framing. Please do share this with anyone who you think might be interested.
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