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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Will Hutton: 'fairness' « Previous | |Next »
November 20, 2010

Will Hutton was among those who argued for a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the days following the 2010 election. He has adopted a critical stand to the neo-liberal mode of governance in which only the market could determine priorities rationally – the role of the state was to provide a “level playing field” for market forces to work optimally.

His picture of Britain since the 1980s is that of a society dominated by the City of London, whose inflated wealth is unmerited by the value of its contribution. He paints a picture of the City run wild, with politicians incapable of providing the leadership to challenge its dominance.

In an extract in The Observer from his Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society Hutton says:

The British are a lost tribe – disoriented, brooding and suspicious. They have lived through the biggest bank bail-out in history and the deepest recession since the 1930s, and they are now being warned that they face a decade of unparalleled public and private austerity. Yet only a few years earlier their political and business leaders were congratulating themselves on creating a new economic alchemy of unbroken growth based on financial services, open markets and a seemingly unending credit and property boom. As we know now, that was a false prospectus. All that had been created was a bubble economy and society.

He adds that most of the working population do not deserve the degree of austerity and lost opportunity that lies ahead of them. It was not their behaviour that created the biggest peacetime public deficit in history, the credit crunch and the business models built on the fiction that it could all continue for ever. Yet while they suffer, those who did cause the crisis have got away largely scot-free.

The moral concept of fairness is then bought into play as Hutton's intention is to make fairness the measure of all political and economic relations. His key argument in his analysis of the financial crisis is that Big finance was economically inefficient, dysfunctional and socially destructive. Above all, it was unfair. And it still is. So we must reassert politics and justice over markets. Hutton says:

All three principal parties have begun to search for a moral voice, and "fairness" crops up increasingly in the language of all of them. Nick Clegg wants to hard-wire it into Britain's DNA. The coalition agreement purports to promote it. Labour campaigned for a future that is "fair for all". The political class has read the runes: fairness is the new moral mantra. So, at a minimum, we now need our economies and our societies to be fair. But what do we even mean by fairness?

Hutton places himself between the neoliberal right ' understanding of fairness as market based inequality and the left's idea of fairness with equality or social justice. For him it has to do with just desert, and his critique of modern capitalism is based on the argument that capitalism allocates deserts unjustly.
The principle of "just deserts" is a key part of our culture. We are not flat-earth egalitarians. But nor do we share the view held by the private-equity or hedge-fund partner in Mayfair that wealth is a signifier of personal worth in its own right. We believe it has to be earned, and we believe the rewards should be commensurate with the discretionary effort. Proportionality is a key value. Its trashing by those at the top of the financial and business community risks an angry populist backlash fuelled not by envy, as they airily claim, but by a visceral human instinct.

Fairness (ie., justice) as a matter of desert, is different from Rawls's view of it as an outcome of just institutions.

Hutton draws on psychology and anthropological research in his attempt to show that our notion of fairness is biologically grounded, if not innate. We have a tendency to accept the allocation of resources according to what is deserved and proportional. "Desert and proportionality," he writes, "are part of our warp and weft."

We can dump the fairness is innate and take Hutton's philosophical moral principle to be that reward must be proportionate to effort, skill and contribution to the collective, and separated from sheer luck. His is a desert-based conception of justice in which Individuals that are more deserving should have outcomes that are more valuable.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:35 PM | | Comments (2)


Martin Wolf in his review of Hutton's book ---A must-read--- in The Financial Times says:

what Hutton has done is also important: he lays out a new agenda for the democratic left; he advances a programme based on hope, rather than resignation, in the face of today’s economic changes; he seeks to blend the market with a notion of what is just; he seeks to reinstate the legitimacy of democratic politics; and he emphasises, rightly, that the failure of finance has to be seen as a political and economic turning point.

Is it possible to blend the market with justice? Or does justice have to be watered down? Can a market society be a fair or just society?

I guess that there are many sorts of justice—distributive, retributive, social etc.

The truth about justice (all sorts of justice) is that it can be bought.

Given the same injustice, Andrew Forrest and James Packer can get far better "justice" than some pensioner in Alice Springs. The young Packer isn't going to miss a meal just because he has to pay a parking ticket.