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When equal can mean unjust

By Peter Saunders - posted Monday, 15 July 2002

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 equality?

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.

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About the Author

Peter Saunders is a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, now living in England. After nine years living and working in Australia, Peter Saunders returned to the UK in June 2008 to work as a freelance researcher and independent writer of fiction and non-fiction.He is author of Poverty in Australia: Beyond the Rhetoric and Australia's Welfare Habit, and how to kick it. Peter Saunder's website is here.

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