Thursday 12 September 2013

Equal and fair are not the same thing

The issue of sharing out government spending fairly, on whatever subject area, is neither simple nor straightforward.  Fair shares are not the same as equal shares – if needs were equally distributed life might be a lot simpler.
Unequal shares are easier to identify and highlight than unfair shares; and putting numbers on the inequality makes a nice headline, which is why politicians are so fond of them.
Take this total non-story from yesterday’s Western Mail.  The Tories have been aided and abetted by the Western Mail in highlighting the unevenness of the distribution of grants for sporting activity across Wales.  But nowhere does the non-story even ask the question about whether this is fair or not.  Inequality is effectively deemed to imply unfairness. 
How far should we take this approach?  If every county in Wales received the exact same amount of money per head of population, I rather suspect that we would then have 22 Freedom of Information requests about the distribution within those counties.  They would show that some villages or towns get more than others – and some politician (choose whichever party you like here) would express his or her shock and horror.
Treating equality of expenditure as though it’s the same as fairness would mean – and I’ll admit that this is a case of “reductio ad absurdam” - that the government could just give us £11.23 – or whatever the right figure is – each and be done with it.
I don’t know whether the distribution of sports grants actually reflects the distribution of need across Wales.  And this non-story does nothing to enlighten me.  What I do know is that “need” is not evenly distributed.  I’d be far more suspicious about the fairness of an entirely even pattern than I am about an uneven one.


Anonymous said...

The other alternative would be not to take the £11.23, letting people support through donation to culture (sports for example).

John Tyler

Stephen Richardson said...

You are quite correct. Of course to take your argument evn further than the £11.23 - why not just do away with all taxes and public spending (as the Tories would advocate). That would be very equal, and those with the money would say very fair. Thing is it wouldn't be fair and any social conscience means that you have to consider need as opposed to equality.