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What Should Fairness Mean For Liberal Democrats?

September 15, 2011

We are not born with equal abilities to each other. We do not become of equal ability to each other through life. Fairness as a political philosophy cannot achieve equality of ability.

We are born into different families, into different traditions, into different circumstance. We are not born with equal chances. Our chances depend on our environment and our response to this environment. Fairness is sometimes explained as giving everyone equal chances. In 2010, Nick Clegg said: ‘It is simply not acceptable that the circumstances of a child’s birth can become a life sentence of disadvantage.’

I don’t like the description ‘equal chance’. It seems to place the onus on government to give everyone an equal chance, and it doesn’t provide a solution when those chances are not taken. Nor does it recognise different abilities.

Historic Liberal thinking recognises the responsibility of the individual as well as the responsibility of the state. We should not be talking about chances that the state on its own gives to the individual. We should as Liberal Democrats be talking about equal opportunities for all to nurture the abilities of all individuals.

It is Labour philosophy at its best that would promote equal chances for all. In practice in means moving money and resource from the more successful to the less, not because it inevitably improves the fortunes of the less successful, but because it is redistributive.

Conservative philosophy has always put more emphasis on the individual. Conservatives do support the less successful within the welfare state but do not see it as the role of the state to transform the individual. For the modern Conservative, individuals determine their own chances.

Fairness for Liberal Democrats should be defined as giving every individual an equal opportunity to nurture their abilities and make the most of them through their whole lives. Fairness is an aspiration that is not imposed by the state alone, but is a contract between the state and every individual. It recognises the role of the state to create equal opportunities and recognises and requires the role of individual responsibility.

One consequence of this argument is that Liberal Democrats cannot be shy about redefining the role of the Welfare State. It can be argued that the values of society relating to individual responsibility that existed as Beveridge developed the principles of the Welfare State are now not universally shared by the beneficiaries of the Welfare State, and that the state now needs to rewrite the principles of the Welfare State to build in the responsibility of the individual.

Who better to do this than the party that has brought together social democracy and liberalism.

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