Equality and fairness are not the same thing – which matters more?

Equality and fairness are not the same thing – which matters more?

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 28, April, 2017

THE AMBITION to create a “fairer, more equal” society has been a stated aim of the current Scottish Government for many years. This is a form of words which has appeared in numerous speeches by the First Minister and other Cabinet Secretaries, and in countless publications and consultations. One would be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that the terms “fairness” and “equality” are interchangeable.

The reality is that these two words do not mean the same, although the confusion between the two is undoubtedly used by some as a deliberate tactic. It is quite possible to have a very equal society that is manifestly unfair to many of its members. The old Communist Soviet Union certainly tried to achieve equality of outcomes for its citizens, but I can think of few individuals who would describe it as a fair place to live.

The charity Oxfam, to which very many well-meaning people donate large sums of money believing that they are helping eradicate poverty in the Third World, now seems obsessed with inequalities of outcomes in Western countries, including in the United Kingdom. Even if it is correct in its analysis, quite how this helps the hungry in Africa is far from clear.

The contrast between fairness and equality is best illustrated with a simple example. Say I offer each of my two children £5 if they will spend the afternoon tidying their rooms. My daughter does just that. My son spends the afternoon instead playing computer games. At 5pm I reward my daughter with £5, while my son gets nothing.

My daughter is now £5 richer than my son. I have created inequality. But were my actions fair? I doubt that even my son would argue that I was acting in an unfair fashion.

So an unequal society may be created by actions, or government policies, that are in themselves fair. The interesting question that arises is to what extent people care about inequality more than they care about fairness. This was the question that was addressed in the recent academic paper: “Why people prefer unequal societies” by Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin & Paul Bloom (Nature Human Behaviour, 1, 0082 (2017) ).

The authors of this study argue, from the research conducted, that there is no evidence, despite appearances to the contrary, that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Instead, what bothers them is something that is often confused with inequality, namely economic unfairness. 

Drawing upon scientific studies and research, they argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. 

A good illustrative example of this is shown in scientific experiments conducted with six-year-old children, who are asked to award erasers to members of their peer group who have had to conduct simple tasks, such as cleaning up their rooms. Normally, the tendency is for a group to award erasers equally between those who are deemed recipients. But when children were told that one boy did more work than the other, they awarded extra erasers to the hard worker. This is, perhaps, a more scientific confirmation of my own example given earlier.

The societal acceptance of unequal outcomes is closely linked, the paper’s authors argue, to a belief in social mobility. A belief in meritocratic mobility is associated with more tolerance for inequality, as reflected in less discomfort with existing wealth inequality, less support for the redistribution of educational resources, and less willingness to support raising taxes on the rich. This demonstrates why, for example, American citizens might have an unreasonable tolerance for inequality because they tend to overestimate the extent of social mobility in the USA (“the American Dream”). 

The paper addresses the question of the blurring of the lines between concerns over fairness and equality. Worries about inequality are conflated with worries about poverty, and erosion of basic rights and unfairness. It is these issues that are what really concern people, rather than inequality of outcomes in themselves.

So the lesson for policy makers is that we need to create real economic mobility and fairness in society, and if this can be done then people will worry less about inequality. So, for example, addressing the education system so those from poorer backgrounds have the same, if not better, opportunities than those from better-off families has to be a priority.

This whole debate was put into some interesting context this week with publication of the latest figures on income and equality in the UK from the Office of National Statistics (see chart above). What these demonstrate is that, contrary to popular belief, post tax disposable income inequality in 2016 was at the lowest point it had been in any year since 1986. So despite all the rhetoric about the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, we are actually at a 30-year low in terms of income inequality.

So next time you hear a politician, or a political commentator, conflating fairness and equality, it is worth challenging them on what they actually mean by the terms that they use. And not let them away with any lazy assumptions that income inequality is getting worse, even if we decide that that is what matters most.

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