Jesse Norman MP has raised important points in his discussion of The Big Society and the concept of ‘fairness’. Bruce Lloyd argues that he raised a number of areas for further debate.
In practice, moral statements can be viewed just as useful behavioural guidelines that help, in a utilitarian context, and are the basis of developing a sustainable underpinning for the relationships between the various stakeholders within any society or organisation. Fairness – or more specifically, a perceived sense of fairness – is a critical factor in sustaining relationships between stakeholders. It enables them to evolve in a direction that is ultimately for the benefit of all concerned and is a fundamental dimension of social stability and the direction of its future evolution.
Of course, fairness is a particularly challenging concept for materialistically driven societies that focus on measuring success primarily through the use of materially related positional goods. There is considerable evidence to show that societies and organisations that enjoy higher level of perceived fairness also experience higher levels of commitment.
I am writing this piece while hearing in the background a BBC news item that mentions problems over the ‘fairness’ of the school entry system. Unfortunately there are invariably paradoxical and problematic trade-offs to be made between making a system ‘fairer’ and making it simpler; systems invariably evolve in a more complicated direction precisely in an attempt to ensure greater ‘fairness’. Relying on ‘power struggles’ between the various stakeholders to deliver greater fairness only works well when they behave reasonably and where there exists a reasonable power balance.
Fairness may be a ‘complex fuzzy’ concept but it is a factor that has underlined virtually all the power struggles and revolutions of history. We may well never be able to reach a perfect system of fairness (although that is what the legal system attempts to do), but it is important that we continue to try to move in the right direction if we want to avoid the damaging consequences of not doing so.
It may well be – as Norman argues – that there were only ‘very modest gains in equality’ during the period of the recent Labour Government. But this may be simply a reflection of how hard it is to achieve progressive redistribution policies. Few people will complain if the current government was to have more success in this area. I expect more radical proposals are needed to make any significant difference over the underlying long-term trend to greater inequality.
Norman ignores the vital potential role of co-operatives as a relevant vehicle for any ‘Big Society’ movement. Certainly ‘power must be diffused’, but those who hold power should be using it in the interests of all the stakeholders, rather than just their own interest. Unfortunately the underlying challenge for those attempting to implement the basic ideas of a Big Society is that Britain still is, as Norman recognises, a very unequal society.
The ideas outlined by Norman should work well within a reasonably homogeneous middle class society, driven by an overall sense of responsibility. Unfortunately in too many parts of the world politicians themselves are seen to be part of the problem: too often perceived as primarily concerned furthering their own interests.
No discussion of these issues can ignore how the banking (and economic) system needed to be bailed out by the collective action of nation states. It is a classic example of where more responsible behaviour from all concerned would have helped avoid the crisis in the first place, as well as showing how difficult it is to have any perfect regulatory system that is economically viable. It is too often forgotten that Adam Smith’s market philosophy and approach was envisaged to operate within a responsibility driven framework. Unfortunately, if the underlying reality is a culture of greed and selfishness it is difficult to move in the direction Smith proposed. In addition, the tendency to make the regulations more complex in the interests of trying to achieve greater fairness, while understandable, is not necessarily The need for a ‘three way relationship between individuals, institutions and the state’ advocated by Norman sounded very much like Anthony Giddens’ ‘Third Way’, that was so influential to New Labour thinking. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but why is it so difficult for politicians to acknowledge these common factors? If we are really concerned with developing anything approaching a Big Society concept we surely need to concentrate on what unites us, not on being divisive and on what divides us.
To say ‘none is forbidden from speaking at all’ is a noble aspiration for any civil society, where all concerned accept the need to behave responsibly. But the reality is that we can only try to work towards that utopia. Are we to be free to ‘incite hatred’? How far are we able to be free from our responsibilities to others? What are these responsibilities? These are not easy questions to answer and is dependent on both how ‘the line is drawn’, as well as where it is drawn.
Norman concludes: ‘How exactly these [trade offs] play out is a question we must leave not to experts or professionals, nor even to philosophers but to politicians. Only politicians can legitimately make the trade-offs between competing interest – indeed between fairness, equality, efficiency and justice – that constitute good government’. This completely undermines my understanding of the central thesis behind the Big Society idea, namely that we cannot, and should not, leave so many of the issues and judgments to politicians.
Unfortunately the media tends to emphasise confrontation and conflict, which can make it even more challenging to produce a culture of respect and conversational quality that is so vital underpinnings of anything that approaches a civil society. The importance of learning from the collective experience of previous generations cannot be over-emphasised and in this context the rehabilitation of the concept of wisdom is long overdue. In the end the quality of our decisions, both socially and organisationally, probably depend more on the quality of our conversations than on anything else.
Dr Bruce Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management, London South Bank University and FRSA.