My ‘Fair’ Gentleman12. October 2010 by Herman Brodie
No term has been more (over)used in the debate about the UK austerity plan than the word fair. ‘It is fair’, argued the Prime Minister, ‘to ask those with the broadest shoulders’ to ‘bear a greater load’. As a consequence, David Cameron considers it fair for higher-rate tax payers to forgo their child benefits and that benefit recipients generally see their advantages limited to the average of those who go out to work. High-earning graduates might even see the subsidised interest rates on their student loans sacrificed on the altar of fairness.
Not everyone agrees with the honourable gentleman. Whenever there is any policy change there will invariably be winners and losers in absolute or relative terms. So a critic who highlights the lot of someone whose income happens just to be on the cusp of a tax band or just beyond a means test threshold, is not providing any useful service. In the case of the planned child benefit cut, for example, the change only a produces an 8 percent saving, so there cannot be too many losers. And nobody talks about the fairness or otherwise of the pre-existing state.
Mercifully for Mr Cameron, peoples’ perception of fairness is very malleable. If I want to sell my used car for £3,500 and a potential buyer stubbornly offers only £3,400, we both perceive fair the idea of ‘meeting in the middle’ at £3,450. However, had my original selling price had been £3,600, the buyer and I might have met at a mid-point of £3,500, still ‘fair’, but £50 higher. So to secure fairness, the government needs only to announce a high level of cuts and to backpedal a little afterwards, a bit like it is doing at the moment.