The divide in the US between the Trumpian wing of the Republicans and the Progressive wing of the Democrats symbolizes a polarized debate about the virtues of small government versus big government and about the virtues of self-reliance versus the need for a stronger social safety net. At a more fundamental level it can also be seen as about the importance of concepts of ‘Fairness’ for democracies. This blog looks at fairness.
Fairness and democracy
Fairness is seen to be of fundamental importance for democracies because it is viewed as necessary for a willingness to cooperate in society. It helps to underpin a sense of ‘togetherness’ without which social relationships are unlikely to be productive and political association will fail. There exist other sources of feelings of 'togetherness', such as family, group and community identities, as well as shared history. However, history is often seen from different perspectives and in modern diversified societies, such as the US or in Europe, ‘togetherness’ has become more elusive just at the time when it is most needed. What is ‘fair’ comes in different forms and matters in different ways.
Fairness as fair distribution
Probably the most common way in which we think about what is ‘fair’, or ‘unfair’ is in terms of fair distribution of income and wealth. The assumption is that people want to see the fruits of social cooperation divided up evenly.
Clearly in today’s world the fruits of social cooperation are not divided remotely evenly, and the excesses of the super-rich do not encourage the feeling that we are all in it together.
Inequalities are thrown in our faces every day. We witness billionaires playing with their space toys, buying social kudos with their own-name foundations, superyachts for sale at prices over £50m and the purchase of a satirical comment on the excesses of the art market for £16m. (Banksy’s ‘Love is in the Bin’ at Sotheby’s October 2021).
However, people do not always look for equal sharing in terms of the distribution of rewards. If people have not made an equal contribution to an outcome, they may not agree on the equal sharing of that outcome. It may be acceptable that those who have contributed more to a positive outcome, ‘deserve’ more. Conversely, it may be accepted that those who have not contributed at all may merit less.
Fairness as equal treatment
Fairness can also be expressed and experienced in terms of equal treatment. Equality under the law is one important expression. Fairness in this sense warns against the many forms of social discrimination, including racial and gender discrimination. In politics the right of each person to a vote and the idea of equal voice are further expressions of the same principle. Fairness in this sense is about equality in relationships and distinct from the outcomes of those relationships. Our own preferred party may not prevail in an electoral contest. But if we have all had the opportunity to vote, to organize and to express our own views, we are more likely to accept the result as ‘fair’.
Fairness as fair play
Fairness can be expressed thirdly in terms of the importance of fair play. Fair play is rooted in the notion that people care about how they are treated by others and that the willingness of people to cooperate with others depends on how well they themselves are treated by others. It points to the importance of reciprocity in building social relationships.
Fair play is distinct from sharing because it places primary attention on how people bring about a result rather than on how the result turns out. It can be expressed as ‘decisional’ fairness and in the need to address power relationships. When elections are captured and controlled by money and oligarchs the sense of fair play is lost.
One important expression of fair play is in the terms of contractual relationships in markets. Traditionally, terms of contract in the labour market were particularly important. In today’s world, the terms on which we relate over the internet with platforms and providers may be equally important.
A further important dimension of fair play is in terms of Intergenerational fairness, or taking the long-term view. There is a tradition in political theory, going back at least as far as Edmund Burke, in pointing to the importance of politics as a means to express solidarity between generations. In today’s world the idea of fair play between generations has taken on a greater salience for two main reasons: First, in connection with concerns about the environment, where today’s generation risks passing on huge costs to future generations; Secondly, because aging populations place additional burdens on younger cohorts.
Failing the fairness tests
There is a case for saying that American democracy has lost its underpinnings of fairness in each of these senses. Grotesque displays of income and wealth inequalities undermine any sense of fair distribution. Unequal educational opportunities and unequal access to healthcare undermines any sense of equality of treatment. The erosion of contractual assurances in market relationships, and lack of long-term thinking about the environmental and age care burdens passed on to future generations, undermine a sense of fair play.
Concern about backsliding from democracy in America is often expressed in terms of ‘polarisation’. Polarisation however is a symptom. The greater concern should be over the erosion of fairness in each of its different meanings.