More thoughts on It’s not Fair

I blogged about inequality for Blog Action Day, wondering if people really thought inequality wasn’t fair, or whether people thought the poor deserve their predicament. Probably a bit of both.

This means we have got to the situation where it is possible to see inequality and think that it is fair. This bothers me. I think we need a new metaphor, so here is my offering.

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Imagine a family, living in a nice house. Dad has a well-paid job and earns lots of money. He pays the mortgage and the bills and has plenty left over for gadgets and games, expensive clothes, costly sports club membership and plenty meals out with work colleagues.

Mum has a small part-time job and looks after the house. Her wages have to cover food, school uniform and expenses, and her own personal spending.

Two children earn nothing and get nothing. They are fed and clean, but their rooms are bare. They’re not allowed to play on Dad’s gadgets and have none of their own. No treats, no school trips, no clothes other than for school, a bed and that’s it.

Dad works hard and deserves to keep his hard-earned cash – the kids aren’t contributing, why should they benefit from his multi-channel TV and numerous games consoles. Mum has a bit left over from basic shopping and spends it on a few nice things for herself. She deserves her hard earned cash too, little as it is.

Unfortunately there’s been a bit of disruption to Dad’s comfortable existence. There’s a leak in the roof, the boiler only works intermittently, and the washing machine has died. Dad doesn’t see why his hard earned money should pay for things which everyone will benefit from. Mum’s wages don’t stretch that far, however fed up of the launderette she might be.

This ridiculous scenario is plainly unfair. Even though I haven’t suggested the children are mistreated, we don’t expect families to behave like this. In a family, we are in a relationship with each other. Children are not valued as economic units, but in their own right as humans and family members. Parents have responsibilities for their children and everyone has rights and responsibilities towards one another. We expect families to care and share, and not to behave selfishly.

It isn’t a big leap to apply this metaphor to our country or even to the world. Clearly, it’s a metaphor and not a policy statement. But if we thought about ourselves as part of a big family, some of our behaviour would look very differently. Ideas about how much money people deserve and how it should be distributed would change, ideas about what it means to contribute, what makes people valuable [basically, just being people]. Thinking about others as part of our family makes us responsible in some way for their wellbeing, makes us interested in their wellbeing. And failure to invest in shared infrastructure or for the common good is revealed as selfish and ultimately self-defeating.

I’m sure there are many more ways we can apply this metaphor to society – I’m just wondering what happens to children who have nothing to do all day! And ways in which the metaphor falls short or doesn’t work. But we need to tell a different story about our fellow citizens as we inhabit this world together, a story that encourages to value each other, care for each other and work together for all our wellbeing.

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