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The tipping points for a fair society
Inequalities feed off each other, creating vicious cycles. But the opposite is also true. Progress is nonlinear. Can we set up a virtuous cycle of fairness tipping points?
A report out last week claimed that a few relatively small policy changes to support key low-carbon sectors (electric cars, meat alternatives and green fertilisers) could act as ‘super-tipping points’ to trigger huge growth in those sectors and rapidly reduce carbon emissions across the world.
It’s nice to hear some cause for hope on the climate; here’s hoping that those tipping points outpace the scary ones that lurk around the corner courtesy of Mother Earth.
This got me thinking about tipping points in the context of society and the economy, as they relate to fairness (and specifically to the reduction of inequality).
You don’t have to look hard for evidence that inequalities interact with each other and make each other worse. That’s the basis for the continued calls for policymakers to think about, and measure, inequality in intersectional terms (and there is very little data on how different types of inequality interact, although the ONS will be publishing ‘multivariate’ data from the 2021 census in the coming months).
In their 2007 book Disadvantage, Jonathan Woolf and Avner de-Shalit describe how disadvantage ‘clusters’ so that some people are disadvantaged in several different ways, leading to ‘corrosive disadvantages’ (disadvantages that increase other disadvantages). Those who wish to build a more equal society must find ways to ‘decluster’ these disadvantages (for example, to ensure that economic inequality does not translate into political inequality), and to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle by promoting ‘fertile functionings’ (capabilities, such as physical and mental health, self-respect and control, that in turn support the development of other capabilities).
Jonathan Woolf joined fellow philosophers Martin O’Neill and Fabienne Peter on an edition of Radio 4’s In Our Time last week that looked at the work of John Rawls (disclaimer - both Jonathan and Martin are members of our expert contributors network). Rawls is sometimes seen as somehow defending inequality, but his three principles (equal liberty, equal opportunity, difference) are actually much more radical than that. Putting them into practice would involve the kind of root-and-branch reshaping of society that would not just compensate for inequalities (as his ‘difference principle’ might do if enacted on its own), but would reduce or even remove them entirely.
Some might think that this is a utopian vision. And arguably it is, especially because the barriers to change are so entrenched and so mutually reinforcing. But the flip side is that, when you start removing those barriers one by one, the absence of one barrier weakens the adjoining ones, and soon you get a domino effect. And what you’re building instead (what’s the opposite of a barrier in this metaphor - a ramp?) starts to become mutually reinforcing instead. The vicious circle has become virtuous.
We could imagine this effect in practice if, for example, we reformed the housing market. Picture a society in which everyone can afford to live in decent, secure housing (granted, we’re a long way from it at the moment). Imagine the impact on people’s physical and mental health, on their productivity at work, on their children’s performance at school, on their ability to spend money elsewhere in the economy… And so on.
The catch is that converting a barrier into a ramp requires us to reduce inequalities, not just to compensate for them (we wrote about this in our foundational document, The Fair Necessities, in November 2021). Aristotle said that we should treat equals equally, but unequals unequally (and here’s the old equity-vs-equality graphic to make that point). And this is true. But taking steps to compensate for inequalities (for example, by diverting more resources to schools in deprived areas), while necessary and important, is not enough. We need to get away from a society in which some people play life on the lowest difficulty setting (and have a huge headstart), while others have to overcome barriers at every turn.
The only way to do this is to remove the barriers. And that’s difficult (although a good start would be to follow the lead of the Welsh Assembly by enacting the socio-economic duty and legislating for the wellbeing of future generations). But the good news is that once we pull one down, we might be surprised how quickly the others start tumbling down too. And that would be a tipping point worth celebrating.
Keep your eyes peeled for some polling that we’ll be publishing next week on public attitudes to the strikes (which might mean that next week’s edition of Fair Comment is published a day or two later than normal).
Thanks to those who shared their thoughts on whether we should turn on Substack’s chat function. The reactions were mixed, so we’re going to put this one on the back burner for now!