The Sunday Times

January 29th, 2012

We can have human rights or welfare – but not both

Fairness is the obsession of the moment. It constantly, ceaselessly dominates the news. From welfare caps to fat cats’ bonuses to expelling foreign rapists and terrorists, the nation has suddenly become hypersensitised to fairness. To take welfare, the prime minister insists that the government’s plan to cap benefits at £26,000 a year, the equivalent of a salary of £35,000, is a “basic issue of fairness”: it is clearly most unfair to those who work that people who don’t should have a much larger net income than they do, and often live somewhere much nicer too. Most people agree with David Cameron.

But vociferous bishops in the House of Lords, including the meddling Archbishop of Canterbury, think quite otherwise; they, in their usual intellectual muddle and general ignorance of the facts, cry out that it’s unfair to deprive some children of child benefit and drive them into poverty. This sort of line is passionately backed by The Guardian and its allies, in defiance of the facts, as unforgivably unfair.

Unfair, again, is the cry against Firuta Vasile. She is a Romanian woman who came here legally in 2007, on her own with her four children, supposedly to find work, and spends a few hours a week selling The Big Issue on the pavement. Earlier this month, on top of the £25,500 of welfare benefits she already gets, she won the right to be housed at public expense as well: she took a case to court (with taxpayer-funded legal aid) at which it was determined that selling The Big Issue meant she was self-employed and therefore entitled to housing benefit.

This will, of course, apply to countless others. And while all fair-minded people ought to admit that they would do just what Vasile has done in coming here to better her life, there’s something obviously unfair about her story. So, too, is it unfair to us that Abu Qatada, the fundamentalist rabble-rouser, benefits claimant and criminal, cannot be thrown out of the country he has abused, because of factors outside this country’s control: surely it is unfair that his human rights trump ours.

Meanwhile, there is a national uproar about the unfairness of fat cats’ pay and bonuses. Gone are the innocent, optimistic days when nobody cared much what the filthy rich took out of their companies, or why. Who can disagree that the whole compensation culture for fat cats is horribly unfair? All the same, these questions of fairness seem to me to miss the point. These angry debates are like the squabbles of a dysfunctional family that finds itself picnicking on Vesuvius: they are blithely unaware of the rumblings of something much more urgent — the impending explosion of an entirely different world dispensation, when the minutiae of generous welfare payments will be swept away in the lava of international change.

Fairness itself is an idea that is rapidly going the way of the dodo. You cannot have fairness without frontiers, but with globalisation frontiers are a thing of the past. Fairness needs protection — protectionism even, within the physical borders of a shared idea of what’s right — and if frontiers are breaking down under forces outside our control, the idea of fairness will break down with them.

Our old idea of fairness was based on the idea that we on this rich little island could create and maintain a welfare state based on an ideal of what is fair — not necessarily equal, but fair enough, and becoming less unequal. People paid into the common wealth and took out, depending on their circumstances. That was only fair. But that was decades ago, before the time of mass travel, mass migration and the information revolution that inspired global changes including the international human rights movement and its courts.

Many of these changes have been good, or mostly for the good. But the weakening of frontiers has had big consequences. To take the question of vastly unequal salaries and sheltered assets: all this is a direct result of the mobility of the filthy rich, in a globalised world. As Peter Mandelson pointed out only last week at Davos, his government hadn’t foreseen how much globalisation would create income inequalities. And individual governments are largely powerless to do anything in the direction of fairness.

Then, to take welfare, the right has argued for a long time that multiculturalism (following rapid mass immigration), in insisting on so many different identities, has been deeply divisive, and has undermined our shared sense of responsibility towards all those with whom we can identify. So, too, has mass migration in itself.

Before long the liberal left came round to this view: in an influential essay in the liberal Prospect magazine its then editor, David Goodhart, argued that multiculturalism had weakened the social ties that bind, including the willingly shared ties of social security. That’s been exacerbated by welfare tourism, fake asylum seekers and the unaffordable entitlements of unlimited numbers of foreigners such as Vasile. Equally, the willingness of some eastern Europeans here to work, live and save hard, while softer Britons recline on welfare cushions, has caused new native resentment of the native undeserving poor.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, attitudes to welfare have been becoming rapidly less generous. In 2007, 32% of the population agreed the government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less well-off, while only 22 years earlier, in 1985, the number had been 51%. Similarly, the number believing that the government should “definitely” provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed fell from 42% of the population in 1985 to only 10% in 2006.

This is an astonishing flight from fairness, as it used to be understood, and I think it is partly because of a growing feeling that the whole thing is no longer fair, and not worth supporting. The fact that governments have not had the will or the competence or, in many cases, the right to control the country’s frontiers is partly what lies behind this sense of unfairness.

The plain truth is that life isn’t fair.

Governments cannot make it fair, least of all in a globalised world. On top of that, international economists agree that welfare as we know it, fair or unfair, is becoming unsustainable. What we should be talking about is not fairness but survival.

Lack of incentives fuels our benefits culture, Letters, page 26. The great welfare balancing act, News Review, page 9