Backsliding in democracies and the splintering of opinion between left and right is triggering new concerns about ‘fairness’ in democratic societies. If citizens feel that their system of government is stacked against them and their chances in life, then they have no reason to support it. People will turn to non-democratic systems of government.
This blog looks at the different meanings we can give to ‘fairness’ and their links to democratic forms of government.
These different meanings are important. They lead to different diagnoses of what is wrong in modern democracies. They point to different remedies.
Three meanings of fairness
It is generally agreed that democracies should treat their citizens ‘fairly’. There are three main meanings that we can give to what is ‘fair’.
A first meaning of what is fair refers to fair distribution. It is about inequalities in income and wealth.
According to some democracy theorists, a democratic system of government will face a challenge from non-democratic alternatives if it fosters and sustains great and continuing inequalities between rich and poor, fails to support social mobility, and creates instead a permanent underclass.
Concern about inequality defined in these terms, and its adverse political effects, currently animates a move to the left within the Democratic Party in the US. It also is prompting a swing to the left and a major new social research effort in the UK.
A second meaning to give to what is fair is to identify it with equality. Equality can refer again to distributive fairness –everybody should have more or less equal shares. It can, however, also refer to equality of status.
For example, in democracies everyone has a vote, and an equal voice at election times, regardless of other differences such as differences in education, income, ethnicity, gender or colour. Similarly, in democracies, everyone should be equal under the law.
In today’s world, equality of status may still involve questions about access to the ballot box. But there is a much wider agenda about discrimination in other forms, such as access to health care, higher education and to senior corporate positions.
According to some democracy theorists it is equality of status rather than equality of distribution that underpins democracies.
A third meaning of what is fair is to refer to fair treatment. Fair treatment in this more general sense is about the underlying motivation and desire to cooperate and associate freely with others.
The proposition from social psychology is that if people feel that they are being treated fairly by others, they are more likely to be motivated to reciprocate and to cooperate with them in return.
According to some democracy theorists we should pay primary attention to fair treatment. Democracies depend on the willingness of people to cooperate and associate freely in their everyday lives. In particular fair treatment places the focus on relationships between those who have authority and those who don’t. It is about positional advantage and disadvantage. We are unlikely to want to associate and to cooperate willingly in an institutional setting where we are at an in-built positional disadvantage.
When voters make accusations about the privileged positions of ‘insiders’ and ‘elites’ in their ability to get what they want, they are essentially talking about unfair relationships and the misuse of position.
There is a strong case for saying that out of these different ways of looking at what is fair, it is getting relationship values right, or ensuring fair treatment that is the most important. Distributional fairness is about dividing up the pie. Fair treatment is about how we go about baking the pie. It recognizes that:
There are other reasons for giving primacy to fair relationships. If we feel that we ourselves are being treated fairly we are more likely to cooperate with others on meeting common goals, trust institutions with authority, more likely to be able to think ahead and to achieve inter-generational fairness.
Authoritarianism and fairness
The prediction that emerges from the concern about fair treatment is that authoritarian regimes will end up with greater income and wealth inequalities than in democracies because they provide no check against the exploitation of positions of power. In this connection recent work by UNU/WIDER suggests that inequalities in China are much worse than official statistics suggest.
Populism and fairness
Democracies are being eroded by attacks both from the left and the right. The left focuses on inequalities in income and wealth. The right focuses on feelings of exclusion from power. We need to pay attention to both. In particular we need to look at political institutions and the way the pie is baked rather than on market outcomes and the way the pie is divided up.