Australia has always prided itself on its sense of ‘fairness’; it is
central to the national identity. But what does this widespread commitment
to the notion of "giving people a fair go" really mean?
The hegemony of the Left
The ‘Left’ assumes that fairness means ‘egalitarianism’ – the
forcible reallocation of money from one group of people to another by use of
State power. They think that a ‘fair society’ is one where the
distribution of income and wealth is made more equal through government tax
and welfare policies.
In a recent article in the Melbourne Age Pamela Bone, its
associate editor, described egalitarianism as "part of the great
Australian tradition of the ‘fair go’" and she took me to task for
asserting that egalitarianism belonged to a specifically left-wing political
agenda. Seen through her eyes, economic equality is one of those principles
we should all unquestioningly accept. Increased equality indicates a move
towards a more decent, caring and civilised society, while any move in the
opposite direction indicates a decline into barbarism and the dog-eat-dog
society of ‘social injustice’.
This seems to have become the orthodox position in Australia. Even in the
higher reaches of the public service bureaucracy in Canberra, there is now
apparently an assumption that egalitarianism is one of those self-evident
‘good things’ that we no longer need to debate. How else can we explain
the recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Measuring
Australia’s Progress) which sees nothing contentious or political
about defining ‘social progress’ as the achievement of greater income
This is an extraordinary assumption for a statutory body like the ABS to
have made, for the idea of ‘fairness’ is essentially contestable. It
need not equate with economic equality, for there are at least two other,
equally plausible, interpretations of what ‘fairness’ and ‘social
progress’ entail. Far from being obvious, the link between fairness and
equality is highly tenuous.
Egalitarianism as fairness
The basic assumption of egalitarianism is that everybody is as good as
everybody else. I don’t have to do anything to prove I am your equal, for
Jack is as good as his master, even if Jack stays in bed all day and his
master works all hours to build up some assets. It is this belief (which
egalitarians suppose to be ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’) that lies behind
the regular calls from bodies like ACOSS for those who earn higher incomes
to pay more tax to help those who are worse off. Egalitarians don’t really
care whether or not people have worked hard for their success, for their
focus is on outcomes, not causes. What matters for egalitarians is the final
distribution of rewards. An unequal society is an unfair society, regardless
of what factors have led to the inequalities.
Equalisation of incomes and wealth is an article of faith in the western
socialist political tradition. For most people on the left, such a policy
needs no justification – it is a moral end in itself. Wide disparities
between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are deemed to be ‘unjust’, and because
socialist politics are about rectifying social injustice, it is felt that
there is a compelling case for seizing resources from the first group and
reallocating them to the second.
But is it fair to expect working people to share their earnings by paying
taxes to support people who do not work? Is it fair, for example, forcibly
to take money away from hard-working people to hand it over to young
unemployed people, or to single parents of teenage children who prefer to
stay at home than take employment? If you believe all this is fair (as
opposed to being unavoidable), then you are an egalitarian.
Meritocracy as fairness
One alternative interpretation of what the notion of "a fair
go" means is grounded in the principle of meritocracy. This is the idea
that people should be properly rewarded for their talent and ability and for
the personal effort that they make to improve their situation. Meritocracy
is grounded in the ethic of ‘equality of opportunity’ rather than ‘equality
of outcome’. Egalitarianism wants us all to cross the finishing line
together, whereas meritocracy demands only that we line up on an equal
footing at the start of the race.
From the point of view of ‘meritocracy’, a fair and just society
requires only that everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed
(e.g. there should be open access to education and no legal barriers
preventing particular groups from practicing any trade or profession).
Social justice does not require that all individuals end up with the same,
for this would reward those who are lazy and would penalise those who work
hard, and this is the antithesis of justice and fairness.
Is it fair to reward talent and hard work? Many wealthy individuals were
born into humble circumstances, but have blended their inborn talents with a
lot of training, dedication and hard work. Is it fair that they should now
enjoy such high rewards? Is it fair that the bright kid in your class at
school who swotted in the library while you were smoking behind the bike
shed has now gone on to become a mega-successful brain surgeon while you are
plodding away in a boring office job on one-tenth of their salary? If your
answer is "yes", then you are probably a meritocrat. If it is
"no", then I suggest you inspect your motives very carefully to
ensure that your response is (as you probably believe) an ‘ethical one’.
Are you sure there is no trace of envy?
Liberal freedoms as fairness
Another ideal of the fair society is the liberal or free market ideal, in
which fairness has nothing to do with equality, nor with how bright you are
or how hard you work. Rather, fairness is the inevitable result of free
exchange of goods and services between consenting adults. Provided the
exchange does not involve deception or coercion, if someone offers goods or
services that people want and someone else chooses to purchase them, then
the end result is fair.