Friday, 19 November 2010

How to evaluate governmental policies: equality or fairness?

There is much talk on equality and fairness in the press now-a-days. Both are difficult concepts to define and measure so I searched for definitions. This is what I got:

- Equality: the condition of being unequal
- Fairness: concerns equality of opportunity; in conformity with rules or standards.
So it seems that to talk about fairness without addressing inequality is quite simply nonsense because within the definition of fairness is the notion of equality. Which brings us to the following question: Under which conditions should public policy actions be evaluated: fairness or equality? This is at the core of the debate on welfare reform.

The Equality Act was centred on making public bodies demonstrate that they had assessed the impact of their decisions on disadvantaged populations. In other words, public bodies had to demonstrate that their actions were not contributing to making our society more unequal. Although some might consider those impact assessments an expensive tick-box exercise, the spirit behind them Act is not.

Inequality matters. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of the Spirit Level found evidence that many social problems are rooted in inequality. The UK is a deeply unequal society. The latest Wealth in Great Britain report published last year revealed big regional divisions in the distribution of wealth amongst households; the wealthiest being located in the south east of England and the poorest in Scotland. Fifty two percent of Scotland’s most deprived areas are in Glasgow. According to OECD data the UK has high levels of income inequality when compared to other industrialised nations. The inequality is not just pay differentials, it also shows in the school readiness of children from poorer families when compared to those of richer families.

The scrapping of the requirement to assess the implications of the actions of public bodies on deprived pockets of our society is based on the assumption that these bodies will do so voluntarily. This assumption raises some disturbing questions. Does, our government really want its public institutions to be free of the duty to assess the consequences of their actions? Is it wise to assume that in a climate of financial restraint, organisations will act altruistically? The proof of this assumption shall be in the pudding.

I would like to propose the following test for fairness. I contend that we will live in a fair society when everyone earns enough to provide for their families’ basic needs. We will live in a fair society when everyone can save for emergencies and to invest in assets, like a home, or an expanded business, or for their retirement. We will live in a fair society when households have some equity to help them weather difficult times and to realistically aspire for better times in the future.

I agree with the statement that it is not possible for any society to guarantee equality of outcomes; however it is possible to govern to achieve equality of opportunities. Then and only then can the outcomes of governmental policies be considered fair


  1. Yes, I agree with your description of fairness. It might be better served by requiring that decision-makers should include those who are most affected in policy making: such as those who have experience of not having the money to buy their child a new pair of shoes, replace a cooker when the one they've got dies, etc. I'm tired of decisions being made about benefits, minimum wages by those who do not know what it is like to have no money till the next giro comes in

  2. Hi Ian

    New blog in progress

    Danny (from Rumoursofangels)


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