How the British prefer to register displeasure

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The interpretation of fairness is culturally specific but rarely does it correspond to measures of income inequality. Fairness is a perception, not a Gini coefficient.

The economic downturn, and the measures that have followed it, have provoked public discontent in many countries. But the expressions of that discontent differ internationally. The US Tea Party movement is a popular uprising of people who believe that their freedom is endangered by the tyrannical regime of President Barack Obama. French students and workers bring the economy to a halt to express outrage at the proposal that they might not be able to retire until they reach the age of 62.

To most people in other countries, both protests seem quite ludicrous. But all nations have their own local obsessions, whose origins are a product of their distinctive history. When Americans pick up their guns, and the French take to the streets, the British agonise over whether life is fair. Enter a pub and within a few minutes you will hear the archetypal British complaint: it’s not fair. We learn this from childhood. The unhappy toddler cries “it’s not fair”, to express his or her discontent. Fairness is today the dominant issue in British politics. Will Hutton and Amartya Sen, whose styles are poles apart but who both show an instinct for current angst, have each recently published books on fairness.

The coalition government last week sought to demonstrate its commitment to fairness with mildly dodgy data on the distributional impact of its policies. But statistical measures of inequality capture no more than a small part of what British people mean by fairness. If you pursue that bar room discussion of fairness, the conversation will quickly turn to benefit cheats and probably go on to bankers’ bonuses. The benefit cheats are loathed because they are people like us who take unfair advantage of our concern for fairness. The outcomes most important to our assessment of fairness are the outcomes for people not very different from ourselves. When the securities trader complains about the size of his bonus, he is not comparing his earnings with those of surgeons or the prime minister, but with the earnings of other traders.

But the legitimacy of the process that led to these outcomes is also an important component of fairness. The benefit cheats have abused the system. The earnings of Wayne Rooney and the fortune of Bill Gates cause little resentment because everyone can both see what they have done, and know that they themselves could not have done it. The inequality that results from a £100m lottery win – a very public process with equal access – arouses envy but is not thought unfair. Bankers are hated because few people understand what they do, or why we need it: but they do understand that bankers are well paid for activities that brought the economy to the point of collapse.

The interpretation of fairness is culturally specific but rarely does it correspond to measures of income inequality. The US, an individualistic society, tolerates a high degree of inequality by nourishing the illusion that any person can become president, robber baron or Wall Street titan. The French seem to interpret the fairness of a policy mainly by reference to the benefits accruing to themselves.

But for the British, the epitome of fairness is shared adversity, which is why they so readily queue and the National Health Service is the country’s best-loved institution. Harold Macmillan’s claim that “you’ve never had it so good” ranks with attempts by Harold Wilson in 1967 and Jim Callaghan in 1976 to deny that Britain faced economic disaster as a memorable political gaffe. However Winston Churchill’s promise of nothing but blood, toil, sweat and tears was a rhetorical device of great power.

Judged by these British values, the coalition’s austerity programme in which everyone loses but few lose very much, is a finely judged package. And so the most strident assertions that it’s not fair come from the affluent middle class who will lose child benefit and contribute more to the university education of their progeny. These are the people whose lavish access to state benefits cannot be defended by those who measure fairness as equality. Fairness is a perception, not a Gini coefficient.

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