Back in 2010 David Cameron and Nick Clegg stated in a press conference, and later enshrined in policy documents, a commitment to the three principles of freedom, fairness, and responsibility.
But, are these principles really compatible? I don’t think that they are.
Let us start by imagining three children, with roughly equivalent innate abilities, running a race, with different prizes for first, second, and third place. We can assume that the organisers did not seek to prepare the children but told them and their parents a year in advance that this race would be run. The parents are aware of the prizes for where their child places. First place wins £1 million, second place wins £80,000, and third place wins £16,000. Each parent knows that they can prepare their child however they see fit – they can train them themselves, or pay someone else to do so. They can do whatever they can to help their child but no-one is free to dispute the fairness of the result. Each parent is responsible for how well they prepare their child, and each child is responsible for how well they run.
Now, suppose that the parents themselves have differing capacities to prepare their children; set one has a lot of money and can buy the best equipment and training, set two are good runners themselves so does their best to train their child. Set three lack the funds to buy equipment or pay for training, and have no inclination to train the child themselves. The children duly run the race: the child of set one wins, the child of set two comes second and the child of set three comes third.
I have two interrelated concerns with this race. Firstly, is the race fair or, rather, does each have a fair chance of finishing in any position? Secondly, can the runners really be held responsible for where they finish in the race?
I think that the answer to each question is quite clearly no.
Each child has roughly the same innate abilities. If the parents had been unaware of the impending race, and therefore unable to prepare their child, then we could plausibly claim that the race was fair as each child was equally unprepared. Would they be responsible for the outcomes? Again I think the answer would be yes since each is in the same initial position prior to starting the race.
Now, let us suppose that the race being run is a lifelong one, where a variety of rewards are scattered at checkpoints along the route. As in the race above, each runner’s family knows their child will be running it; they can prepare the runner as extensively as they choose to, given the resources they have and their personal motivations.
Because we’re now considering the real world, obviously we cannot include the assumption of roughly equal innate abilities; we know that people have different talents, different interests, and different physical capabilities. Importantly, we know that some people may lack the capacity to run this race. They’re physically or mentally impaired, to different degrees. Is this race fair? Are the runners responsible for where they finish? I would again suggest not.
This race situation would roughly equate to a libertarian society, one characterised by minimal government intervention and social welfare, where each person is to do the best they can with the resources at their disposal. For libertarians, intervention to try and offer an equal chance in the race is impermissible. So, those who’re physically or mentally impaired just lucked out.
Now, we know that running the race is not as simple as saying that everyone has a fair chance. Indeed, there is a huge literature on the links between a child’s socio-economic background and what they achieve in life.
In Persistence, Privelege, and Parenting: The Comparative Study of Intergenerational Mobility, Smeeding, Erikson and Jantti state that the,
Evidence in the economic, demographic, and sociological literature of the association between parents’ and children’s social positions makes it very clear that children’s chances for a good life are highly dependent on their social origins or socioeconomic status (SES). More-educated, richer, two-earner couples at higher levels of social and economic status have children later in life and do so in more stable marriages. As a result, they have fewer children and can therefore invest heavily in their children’s upbringing. In contrast, younger parents with less education, lower incomes, and larger numbers of children, as well as lone parents and those in unstable relationships, are more limited in the extent to which they can guarantee good lives for their children.
Significantly, they go on to argue that financial resources have become more unequally distributed in many wealthy countries and that the costs associated with raising children, such as pre-school care and education, are also rising. The result of this is that the wealthier are better able to invest in their child’s start in life.Researchers have also shown that in the UK, ‘children born to poor families are now less likely to break free of their background than they were in the past.’
As wealth, and the attendant benefits, are unevenly distributed, it seems reasonable to suggest that the handicaps and burdens in running the race are also unevenly distributed. In short, a child from a wealthy background is more likely to be wealthy; a child from a poor background is more likely to be poor. Some children have a head-start.
The child with rich parents will quite likely do considerably better in the race of life than the other two competitors, and correlatively the child with poor/unmotivated parents will likely do badly. The race is unfair. Fairness cannot be achieved in a race where some runners have a head start. It is akin to making some children run with a blindfold.
In order to address the issue of fairness, the Coalition has laid out its aims in ‘’Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility’. In this policy document they claim that, ‘Fairness is a fundamental value of the Coalition Government…A society in which everyone is free to flourish…In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth: the home they’re born into, the neighbourhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do.’ They go on to acknowledge that, ‘Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next. The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities.’ We have a clear acknowledgement by the Government that a child’s chance at running should be made fairer. We do not live in a libertarian state, thankfully. Their aims to equalise a child’s chances in the race include:
· Investment in fifteen hours a week of free pre-school education for disadvantaged two year olds, on top of the pre-existing provision for three-four year olds.
· Maintaining Sure Start Children’s Centres, expanding Family Nurse Partnerships, and recruiting thousands more health visitors.
· School reforms intended to raise standards, narrow the gap in attainment and raise aspirations. The Pupil Premium provides an extra £2.5 billion a year for disadvantaged children.
· Funding for disadvantaged sixteen to nineteen year olds was to be increased, for both education, and the creation of additional apprenticeships.
· Universities were to be obligated to improve access for disadvantaged students.
· Access to education in later life was to be improved.
It is clear that the Government at least pays lip-service to the idea that, as a matter of fairness, British citizens should be free from having their lives dictated to them by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing. They should be free from a lifetime spent coping with, ‘addiction, debt, educational failure, family breakdown or welfare dependency.’
All well and good, except that British society is becoming more unequal and an individual’s capacity to run the race is increasingly dictated by the circumstances of their birth. As recently noted in the Guardian on 14/10/2014, Britain is the only country in the G7 where inequality has increased since 2000.
In addition, ‘The amount of the country’s wealth controlled by the richest 10% increased to 54.1% this year, up from 51.5% in 2000, according to the annual Credit Suisse global wealth report.’ The article goes on to claim that there are now forty-four billionaires in Britain, and 4,660 people with a net worth of £31 million. Indeed, from a global perspective, ‘the richest 1% are getting wealthier and now own more than 48% of the world’s wealth…Those with more than $77,000 (£48,000) are among the top 10%. To be among the top 1%, an individual would need assets of $798,000.’
So, the race is unfair. There is at least an acknowledgement that this should be addressed. But, what of the other value espoused by the Coalition, the Tory fixation with responsibility.
If someone does badly, if their go at the race of life isn’t what they wanted, then they only have themselves to blame. This is what taking responsibility means. We find this theme invoked in welfare debates, for example, where it is claimed that it is their own fault that some people are long-term unemployed, or that they didn’t do well enough at school - that they have no marketable skills etc. But, we might wonder if this is true. As I’ve claimed above, the race isn’t one in which everyone starts off in the same place, or even where they run in comparable circumstances.
Some children are innately more intelligent, or better suited to certain jobs or lifestyles. Others have families who can support them, who can buy them a better education or access to pastimes denied to the rest of us. Yet others are raised in homes characterised by debt, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual, physical, and mental violence. Some have no real home to speak of. Others find themselves living on the streets from a young age.
Is it not odd to speak of people being responsible for themselves when sociologically it is clear that their fate, to use such a loaded term, is intertwined with their origins?
Now, the Coalition seems to acknowledge this, since they want to create, ‘A society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise. Where birth is never destiny.’ So, everyone should have a fair go at life (notwithstanding the horrible inadequacies of their policies, or that no matter how far they address the issue of enabling everyone to run, there will still be some runners with significant advantages through education or family wealth etc.).
They know, then, that the correlation between parents’ socio-economic status and that of their child is too closely intertwined to speak of freedom in any meaningful sense. How then can they speak, with any good conscience, of freedom and responsibility? How can someone be free when their chances at the race are largely predicated on their origins? How can they be responsible when they’re not really free?
The three values of the UK Coalition are therefore incompatible as they are. For the race to be fair, each runner would have to have an equal chance at placing anywhere (i.e. there would need to be a total break between their socio-economic background and their achievements in life).
For the runners to be responsible for where they place, and what they achieve, they would need to be able to run freely. The child who finishes third because their parents couldn’t afford to train them or lacked the inclination to is not free to run as well as others.
If the race isn’t fair, and the runners aren’t really free to run as well as they might, then how can they be responsible for where they finish? The way they run the race is constrained and condition by their socio-economic background. It is like asking some runners to drag a weight behind them while others are given steroids to improve their performance. At best some runners may mitigate the extent of their handicap, but it is still there. So, once we call into question this idea of personal responsibility being assigned to those who do badly, we might also wonder whether those who do well are really deserving of how well they do in the race.
We therefore find that the values espoused by the Coalition are linked, though they do no more than highlight the manifest injustices arising from the UK Government. The evidence unequivocally shows us that the UK is becoming more unequal, that wealth is becoming more concentrated, that children are now less likely to break free of their socio-economic background. This distribution of wealth and disadvantage ensures that the race is not fair. Even the proposals aimed at improving fairness only look to mitigate some disadvantage, to prevent some handicaps in the race; they say nothing about some runners having a head start.
Therefore, if the race is not fair, and the runners aren’t free, no-one is really responsible for any of the outcomes. How could they be? We’ve all heard of rags to riches stories, your Alan Sugars and Duncan Bannatynes. But these are exceptions, not the rule. That is why they are put on a pedestal. ‘Work harder, look what you could become.’ These stories merely reinforce the apportioning of responsibility or, perhaps more accurately, blame. If they can do it, why can’t you? It is a fault with the individual, not with the system.
What is actually happening when freedom and responsibility are linked in this way, is that blame can be apportioned to those who don’t ‘pull themselves up’. The race is there, you are allowed to run it. The Government will even try and equalise everyone’s starting chances (through some of its social mobility policies). But, without a radically fairer chance at the race, no-one is really responsible for their outcomes.
This seems to suggest two options. The Coalition should drop the emphasis on responsibility, since it is untenable in light of the sociological evidence, linking socio-economic background to later-life outcomes, and rising inequality which is visible to everyone. Alternatively, it could look to genuinely create a society where everyone has a fair chance at the race. This would require ensuring that no-one is running with a handicap or an advantage, and that those who cannot run are compensated. Only then are the runners truly responsible for what happens.
Obviously this suggestion will be met with derision. To create a fair race would require an extensive, and potentially invasive state, something that the Tories oppose. It would require the equalisation of education, wealth, and upbringing. Utopian thinking perhaps. Or dystopian. But, this is what fairness and equality would require. Otherwise, it seems to me that our deeply unfair society just uses responsibility as a byword for blame. It is your fault you’re poor. No matter that you work sixty hours a week. You should be working harder. Or you should have tried harder at school so you wouldn’t have to. Obviously the wealthy all tried harder and are now reaping the rewards. It’s no-one’s fault that you ran badly, right?
 Jo Blanden, Stephen Machin, and Paul Gregg, ‘Social mobility in Britain: Low and Falling’, CentrePiece Spring (2005), p. 20.
 HM Government, ‘’Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility’, pp. 6-7.