Life, Liberty And The Pursuit of Fairness



Under the UK’s Labour Party Manifesto “For the many, not the few”,, the words “fair” “fairly” or “fairer”, are used 40 times. For example:

On the economy:

“Labour understands that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government. Each contributes and each must share fairly in the rewards.”

On Taxation:

“We believe in the social obligation to contribute to a fair taxation scheme for the common good.”

Economy again:

“More democratic ownership structures would help our economy deliver for the many and lead to a fairer distribution of wealth.”

And so on.

But what does “fair” mean? I know what it means to me, I know what I think fairness in application to me and my family means. I would think you too have your own definition. And I suppose your guess is more or less as bad as mine.

It’s assumed in the manifesto that we know what fair means, that we have agreed what is fair. But we haven’t. It’s not even as if there is a binary definition of fair where the left has one idea and the right has another.

The political spectrum is exactly that, a spectrum. The centre left his its own idea on fairness, which is different from the moderate left, which is different to the moderate socialist, which is different to the socialist, which is different to the communist which is different to the “hard” left, which is different to the anarchist left.

As an aside, in my younger politically active days on the left, I always admired the communists. Not communism, communists. Despite popular opinion that the active left is rife with communists, communists were always shunned from activity on the left.

There was that unwavering support and justification of oppressive communist regimes that just got a bit weird at times. Many weren’t allowed high positions in unions (unless they rejected their communist party membership) and so didn’t have the chance to get on the gravy boat of rising up the union ranks, into local politics and onto national politics.

But my admiration was more for their clear definition of fair. They, more than anyone else on the left knew what they thought fair was. Like Corbyn’s “For the many”, they recognised that there would always be a few who were in power and accumulated wealth.

Fairness then was focused on the many. Under communism, at least the majority of people are equally miserable. The communists believed that under that oppression and equal misery lay true happiness and fairness.

There was a grain of truth to this idea of happy misery. We’re never happy. Even when times are good, we complain and generate something to be angry about whether righteous or not. So why not have it so life is tough and miserable as a default.

That way you’re happy because you have a genuine complaint, but everyone is in the same boat, so you have nothing to envy. If you complain too much and start sounding a bit too revolutionary, you get shot or stuck in a gulag.

No palpitations and faux outrage for two weeks because Trump likes his steak well-done and with ketchup. Moderate grumbling, accept that everyone has it just as bad, ensure adequate stock of homemade hooch.

Most politics is based on a model of fairness and achieving that. It just varies as to what is considered fair. The problem is that there hasn’t been any real attempt to justify fair. Isn’t that the first thing we should define?

Apart from a few outliers at the edge of the political spectrum, surely most agree that society should be fair? Where we can, we should be clear on what fair is and what it means, then look to the policies that get us there.

As someone on the left, when I say “fair taxation”, there’s an assumption it’s based on a common ideal of fairness. When I want fair taxation, I want to pay less tax and have someone else picks up the tab, usually someone with more stuff than me. Maybe that is the common ideal of fairness, maybe it isn’t. Maybe we should take the time to find out what is fair.

This is where we need politicians and policy makers. We don’t need them to be ideology spinners setting policy based on an undefined output. That old chestnut of “evidence-based policy”. That old chestnut of competent and capable politicians.

The problem is that the more specific you get with objectives, the more defined your standards, the more you could be held accountable for not meeting them.

We still need those politicians though. This is where the likes of the MacGill Summer School would be ideal. A place away from rhetoric and politicking. A chance to put aside party lines and look at governance for the common good based on defining what the common good is.

Yet as both Dan Boyle and Derek Mooney have attested, we are still waiting for anything impactful to come from this event.

The extent of party rhetoric only serves the status quo of nothing ever changing, except for a merry-go-round of who is in charge and who we’re angry at. Rhetoric we all fall for.

Many with short memories (except for the younger voters who weren’t around at the time), are in the process of lamenting the eventual downfall of the Affordable Care Act. The failure to replace it isn’t a victory, it just means ACA will go and all the benefits of that system will go.

But it’s the flip flop by both sides that shows how much our opinions of fairness are vulnerable to rhetoric. The ACA was largely based on a Republican proposal (a republican leaning think tank anyway), Obama said as much. It was part of his messaging to get it passed. It first came about in the early 90s as a counter to Hillarycare.

We didn’t like it because it was suggested by the right.

Twenty years later Obama resurrects it as his proposal for healthcare. So now on the left we liked it (with caveat, the same as Hillarycare was liked with caveats), but on the right they hated it. And they still hate it, even though it was their idea. And now we really, really like it because they hate it and we think it is fair. But we didn’t think it was fair in the early 90s.

Maybe there’s a lesson there. Maybe the loud and growing hooligans of the hard left should propose right-wing policies, forcing Leo into left-wing policies just to spite them.

Maybe the lesson is none of us know what we want really, we just want the opposite of what those we consider gobshites want. And I suppose your guess is more or less as bad as mine.

Dabbling in politics from activism to public policy, there is a common thread I’ve picked up. The same thread you pick up in normal social interaction, I’m no more or less special. It’s that the majority of people are good.

The majority of people want a society that is fair for the common good. The majority don’t want harm to come to others through government policy. That includes active party members and politicians.

We’ve just split off and pinned our loyalty to a political rhetoric as if it were a lifetime pledge to our Country GAA sporty thingy team. We’ve let that lead us instead of a defined goal for society.

We tried it once, the constitution goes someway to defining a fair and just society, but we’ve come a long way since then as a society and the document itself isn’t perfect. Minor amendments don’t really do justice to how much society has changed in that time.

Maybe that is where we start. Give it a shake like an Etch-a-Sketch and redraft what we believe a fair society should look like, then look at the policies that will get us there.

First though, we should check ourselves. What do we think is a fair society? What do we think is the common good? Do our own political biases and leanings match up to that? How close do the policies and change we support come to that? Is it even possible to measure the policies we support against fairness?

*Fade out to Man in Mirror by Michael Jackson*

Listrade can be found on twitter: @Listrade

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13 thoughts on “Life, Liberty And The Pursuit of Fairness

  1. Alex Francis

    Fairness is a terrible human construction that doesn’t exist. Fairness can only be bestowed by a purposeful act of benevolence. When a child says ‘it’s not fair’ they’re right, nothing is ‘fair’. Labour should have used ‘equal’ instead of ‘fair’. Equal is a real thing, it can be defined.
    But equality can’t be achieved as it simply wouldn’t be fair

    “Labour understands that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government. Each contributes and each must share equally in the rewards.”

    “We believe in the social obligation to contribute to an equal taxation scheme for the common good.”

    “More democratic ownership structures would help our economy deliver for the many and lead to an equal distribution of wealth.”

    1. Rob_G

      “Fairness is a terrible human construction that doesn’t exist.

      Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, ethics – these are also human constructions that don’t *really* exist, except for the fact that we will them into being, but most people would argue that they are positive.

      1. Alex Francis

        “Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, ethics’. – Can all be defined and each have a set of definite parameters which allow them to be continually redefined.
        ‘Fairness’ has no parameters so it doesn’t exist. It’s fudge. Equality has a definition. You can treat someone equally but you can’t treat someone fairly. As your notion of ‘fair’ might be very different to mine. Fairness is a scale with no measurement. It’s useless.

  2. Gorev Mahagut

    An unfair society is one in which people vote after considering what will be best for folks in their income bracket and social class.
    A fair society is one in which people vote after considering what will be best for those poorer than them.

  3. Janet, I ate my avatar

    my Da always says
    ” what’s not fair ?
    a black moustache
    that’s what”

    nice piece I thought
    enjoy your contribution

  4. Jibjob

    The articles mentions that different parts of the left have their own different versions of “fair”. Perhaps the centre, centre-right, right and extreme right have definitions of “fair”, too?

  5. nellyb

    I had to double check the meaning :-)
    “Impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination.
    I don’t see much ambiguity as Listrade suggested. If you want to dig deeper into anything you’ll find that no measurements are EXACTLY what they are, parallel lines are never parallel etc. But we form a consensus that for practical purposes parralel lines are parallel.
    I am afraid if we invite toouch relativism into interpreting favouritism, discrimination etc – because it’s being abused, we end up in complete chaos.
    Enjoyed the piece. Nice one.

  6. :-Joe


    “The problem is that the more specific you get with objectives, the more defined your standards, the more you could be held accountable for not meeting them.”

    Ask yourselves how the two top ramking unelected eejits from the FF/FG+LAB fine to fail establishment coalition for globalist corporatists and international financial interests…. have both dropped their briefs as TD’s like hot potatoes on more than one occasion and nobody seems to bat an eyelid beyond a moan on a website like I am doing now.?…

    The pair of them, simple simon and your dear leoder are not fit to lead this country. Along with montgomery burns, JAH’REE and don’t get me started on howlin to the moon and moany joan…. urgh… we have no credible candidates that can offer any kind of leadership. The idea of leadership is dead, instead we have a new cycle of populism.

    We need to adopt new ideas similar to the direct democracy policies of Switzerland and incentivise public participation in politics. As bad as the average joe like me actually is at understanding complex issues and making a decision, if you encourage exclusivity and class bias you can only generate resentment that leads to more problems.

    We need active citizens who want to get involved en masse and sacrifice watching a sporting event, soap opera, movie, posting on BS, jerking off etc. etc. for two or three hours a week or even an afternoon a month and that translates to positive changes very fast as an exponential growth in democracy, equality and a more balanced transformation of society.

    Politicians and partys have no real power and the invisible legion of civil servants behind them who are the institutions have no choice but to bow to the will of the people because institutions are made of paper, put together like a house of cards and propped up on sand.

    If we get together and demand change as all kinds of different groups for different issues that need to be dealt with then you will see real change. If you want an improved constitution, a more balanced system from poverty to wealthy and ultimately a more equal society then don’t keep voting against your own self-interests, against society as a whole and for the same damn thing over and over lookng to see any kind of change. It has not happened in fifty fupping years..

    Corbyn’s manifesto, however flawed it might be or the man himself, is good for right now. Just like the new-dealer Bernie Sanders. it’s what the world needs right now until something even better can emerge while waiting for enough people to tune back into being part of their own eco-system instead of mindless consumer drones that we all are most of the time.

    The sad thing, for me anyway, is that I can’t see a credible candidate to lead Ireland, even temporarily but maybe that’s a good thing. More independant representation and more diversity is good. Politicians from prime ministers to presidents, don’t have any power outside of the EU parliament in Europe and maybe the Supreme Court in the US and nowhere near as much power as corporate and financial globalism anyway..

    Leave the voting 60-ish percent status quo behind…. You need to vote for something different if you want something different but you also need to participate and take some responsibility for holding the system to rasonable standards of accountabilty.

    “Fairness” is a more colloquial term that has a more abstract meaning which is exactly what politicians want in their slogans… so they can embed the simple mnemonic message inside your mind.

    Whoever thought “Change” would end up meaning even more wars along with new conflicts, new kill lists and increased drone strikes on civilians in the middle east ….

    Yeah sure, Dr. King, we all had a dream… and you’d have to be asleep to believe some so-called new leader would make any of it a reality… It’s all down to the people.


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