On Fairness 2
I didn’t attend George Osborne’s recent speech here at Demos “on fairness”, but listened to it on our podcast a couple of days ago. Something had been bothering me about it and I couldn’t put my finger on it until yesterday.
Osborne made the case that the right’s approach to the role of government in addressing social and economic challenges results in fairer outcomes for people for three reasons. Firstly, people will be properly awarded for their efforts and abilities. Secondly, there will be greater equality of opportunity. And finally, because the current generation should not saddle the next generation with the costs of its mistakes (inter-generational fairness).
I think Osborne makes the case pretty well for the first two (although more naturally and easily for the first). There’s nothing new in what he says – he’s restating very well known arguments by Hayek, Friedman, and in a more radical, interesting way, Nozick. It’s always been a powerful case intellectually and remains so – including to me.
It’s the third aspect that bothers me. He argues that Labour’s excessive spending will saddle the next generation unfairly with the burden of that spending. A smaller government wouldn’t do that. Fine. But couldn’t the case for inter-generational fairness be made just as easily by the left as well? Osborne is right that it is difficult for government to “pick winners” (though he’s far far too simplistic on this point). But the left could argue by investing more in long-term public goods for the benefit of future generations, or using state tools to overcome “tragedy of the commons” problems (including ones where time is a factor like the environment), it is in fact they who are the natural guardians of intergenerational fairness.
So Osborne’s case seems to rests on how effectively government spends and intervenes for the future. And in particular, how ineffective this Labour government has been. But that’s an entirely different debate (and this is confused by the fact that Labour has, of course, largely followed a broadly right wing economic policy, including financial deregulation).
Anyway, I’d advise listening to this as it gets to the core of one of the few issues of political philosophy where there still is a fundamental difference between the two major parties. Osborne's case is good enough to deserve more debate and discussion - starting here. Any takers?