Friday, April 30th, 2010 09:48 pm
[Note - I've been running all of these past [personal profile] sashajwolf before posting them, and she's been doing fantastic work in picking up on typos, misspellings and areas where I'm not clear. But this post in particular is much improved on my first draft as a result of her input, and I thank her greatly for it.]

'Frankly, I think the odds are slightly in your favour at hand fighting.'
'It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise.' - Westley and Fezzik, The Princess Bride

This wasn't the post I was expecting to make. However, when I wrote my first post on the subject of the Freedom Bill, I wrote a long section on the slipperiness of the word 'fair' (contrasting it with the supposedly hard-to-explain 'free'). In the end, I decided that it broke up the flow of the piece and stuck it in a footnote. Then I decided that even the footnote was superfluous.

And yet … fairness is a word we use a lot in our manifesto. So possibly I should consider what it means. To do that, I need to set out some of what's meant by 'fair'. It may seem intuitively obvious what fairness means, but intuition can trip us up on this one.

A 6-sided die is fair. A pack of cards is also fair, but they're both fair in very different ways. (I'm ignoring, for the sake of argument, trick cards and a loaded die.)

Initially, they're similar. If you roll a die once, you have an equal 1/6 chance of any particular number showing. If you deal a single card, you have an equal 1/52 chance of any particular card turning up. Aside from the numbers, that's the same. If that's hard to see because of the numbers, let's consider a much-reduced pack of cards where you only have Ace to 6 of hearts. Now when you deal, you have an equal 1/6 chance of any given card showing, just as with the die.

It's what happens next that's interesting. When you roll the die again, you still have a 1/6 equal chance of any particular number showing. But with the cards (assuming your first card is still on the table and hasn't been shuffled back into the pack), you only have five remaining cards, so you only have a 1/5 chance of any given card showing.

Let's say you've done this five times. And let's say that with the die, you've (by chance) thrown every number but a five. What are the chances of throwing a five on the next throw? 1/6, just as they always will be. But with the cards, if you've so far laid down every card except the five of hearts, the next card is certain to be the five.

So they're both fair, but they're a different sort of fair. A die is fair in the sense that every time you roll it, you've got an even chance of throwing the number you want. A pack of cards is 'fair' in the sense that the card you want will always come up at some point if you deal for long enough, and that it will come up exactly as many times as any other card (i.e. once) for each deal of the pack.

This may be trivially obvious if you're a gamer – in fact the most recent rules I saw for Settlers of Catan included a suggestion to use cards rather than dice to get round just this problem – in which case I apologise. But I have found that many people don't find the difference intuitively obvious. I realise that someone who insists that they are 'due' a six when rolling a die may be perfectly aware that a die has no memory, but I think many people have trouble with more complex scenarios in the real world.

The real world, as a whole, is very 'fair-like-dice'. Generally speaking, if you're having a run of bad luck in your life, you are not due some good luck soon as a result. But that's not what the stories tell us, with their happy endings, and their just deserts, and their tying up of loose ends in a satisfying manner. It's not what the notion of karma would have us believe. In fact, in life, 'fair-like-dice' often looks the very opposite of fair: 'why do bad things happen to good people? It's so unfair!' we cry. Well, bad things happen to good people because bad things have a (roughly) equal chance of happening to everyone. That's fair, in its way, but it's unpalatable.

Actually, and I thank [personal profile] sashajwolf for pointing this out, it's a good deal worse than that. The overall processes of the world may be 'fair-like-dice' in principle, but at the level of human society, the rich, powerful and privileged generally play with dice that history has already loaded strongly in their favour. Most of the stories, and karma, suggest that this loading of the dice will inevitable have a penalty later. It won't, by itself. Brecht, for one, knew this, and his stories tend to turn out very differently as a result.

When Liberal Democrats talk about making things fairer, then, we are frequently talking about redressing the inequalities of life. We are basically talking about (temporarily) loading a few specific dice ourselves to create a fairer outcome, or at least giving the dice a memory and a conscience. I should point out that I have no problem at all with 'fair' being used in this way; it's a perfectly legitimate use of the word 'fair'. I just feel that it's important to keep straight what sort of 'fair' we mean.

As often as not, we think we mean 'fair' as synonymous with 'equal', although as I point out in the next paragraph, that may be a mistake. Not everyone equates the two. To some people, equality is unfair, because it may mean giving up advantages that people feel that they've 'earned'. 'Privilege' is usually unearned, but that doesn't stop privileged people from squealing if you try to redress the inequality that privilege confers and remove the privilege.

Part of the problem is that even a concept as apparently simple as 'equality' can be complex. How do you achieve equality, in a world where inequality indelibly stains the fabric of our society? Is it enough just to provide a 'level playing field'? Sometimes, yes, but you also have to consider the teams that will play on that field. If only one team is composed of players who can afford the best equipment, who have been trained to play the game by the best coaches, who have spent their entire lives watching people of their race, gender, class, accent or body shape excel at the very game they're about to play, then the levelness of the playing field becomes an irrelevance.

This is why fairness is as crucial to liberalism as freedom is. Without fairness – a pro-active, interventionist fairness – freedom tends simply to increase existing inequalities. Without fairness, freedom of speech gives a voice only to those who can shout loudest. Of course, without freedom, fairness becomes imposed conformity. A liberal society needs both.

Take schools, and our policy of giving every child a fair start in life. Of course we don't mean 'fair' in the sense of 'stuck with whatever chances they were given when they were born'. We mean 'fair' in the sense of 'as equal a chance as possible with their fellow children'. It's not enough to supposedly level the playing field by making sure every child enters a nominally similar school at the same age, although that's a good aim in its own right. We also have to help those children who have already fallen behind; to take those who have thrown ones and twos all their life, and throw them a couple of sixes. And yes, those children who've had a string of sixes so far may well have to accept some ones and twos for a while to redress the balance. All people are not created equal with respect to opportunity in the real world, and I believe it's one of the key roles of government to redress that inequality in a fair way.

Liberals should be mistrustful of any call for the government to intervene in this way. We should set high standards for agreeing to it, and constantly review whether it's still needed. But to try to build a fair society without any intervention at all seems to me impossible (although I have the greatest respect for my anarchist friends who feel differently). And we should remember that the people in power will probably be poor judges of whether it's needed, so we shouldn't dismiss the call for intervention simply because we can't immediately see a need for it.

When we talk of fair votes, the situation's a little more complex. One person: one vote sounds the very essence of fairness, but the devil's in the details. In this case, as my blog entry of a couple of days ago points out, it's easy for 'one person: one vote' to produce an intuitively very unfair result, and not even necessarily obvious what a completely 'fair' result would look like. All voting systems have edge cases where the result is clearly unfair; the aim must be to have in place a system that gives reasonably fair results given the conditions. Given current voting patterns, First Past The Post is blatantly not fair.

Society – particularly looked at in terms of 'fairness' - is a dynamic system. I studied dynamic systems when doing control systems engineering for my degree, and one of the key features of them is that they're very hard to control or stabilise simply from taking a snapshot in time of the system. You need to consider the known past states of the system and the predicted future states, and you will almost certainly need to adjust your strategy constantly over time to respond to the change in state of the system.

So if (for example) we're trying to address gender inequality, then we may need to take actions that redress disadvantages for women. Seen in a snapshot of time, they may look as though they give women an advantage, but looked at in a longer-term context, they're (often barely) addressing an underlying inequality. Take the Campaign for Gender Balance within the Lib Dems – an organisation which among other things offers training, support and mentoring for women candidates. If everything else were equal, the lack of an equivalent organisation for men would seem unfair, but everything else is very far indeed from equal. The equivalent organisation for men is 'the party in general', both historically and currently.

No liberal should be comfortable with policies like that as an indefinite solution, nor would we want to keep them in a (hypothetical and possibly unattainable) world where gender inequality has disappeared, but if we don't use them in our current state, things will tend to the status quo. It's not simply that gender equality will not improve, it may well get worse, as (for example) higher-paid jobs appeal less and less to women, who don't think of them as the sort of jobs women do. Over time, positive feedback restores the system to an equilibrium, and we need to constantly push to stop that happening.

In this case, equilibrium - despite lexical similarity - does not mean equality for all. If anything, it means an inequality that will continue to re-assert itself without effort.

Another approach, of course, is to encourage people to see their identity differently, so that a woman can look at a well-paid man and think 'that person is like me; I could see myself in that job', where 'like me' is based not on gender (nor for that matter on race, religion, age or any other marker) but solely on being someone who is fulfilled by doing the job in question. That, too, is an extremely liberal goal, to try to free people from the constraints of conformity, and we can enthusiastically work towards it alongside other approaches. But I expect it's a very long-term solution, and may well take generations to achieve.

This is my concept of fairness, and I find it resonates well with how fairness is understood in the Liberal Democrats, and expressed in our manifesto. I'll return to the theme in at least a couple of my upcoming blog entries, but felt that the concept itself deserved its own entry.

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