As the financial burden of the Welfare State is bringing the economies of Europe and the United States to their knees, the Telegraph reports that the results of a British think tank’s investigation of public opinion on the issue of fairness strikes at its moral foundation.
As we report today, Policy Exchange â€“ supposedly the Prime Minister’s favourite ideas outlet â€“ has done a brave and unusual thing. Rather than polling the public just on policy and voting intention, it has put a far more abstract moral issue before them. It instructed the pollsters at YouGov to find out precisely what the public thought the most powerful term of approbation in the political lexicon â€“ “fair” â€“ actually amounted to.
The quite unequivocal reply that was received (with breathtakingly enormous majorities in some forms) came as no surprise to this column. To most voters, fairness does not mean an equal distribution of resources and wealth, or even a redistribution of these things according to need. It means, as the report’s title â€“ “Just Deserts” â€“ implies, that people get what they deserve. And what is deserved, the respondents made clear, refers to that which is achieved by effort, talent or dedication to duty: in other words, earned on merit.
As I have written so often on this page, when ordinary people use the word “fair”, they mean that you should get out of life pretty much what you put in. Or, as the report’s authors put it, “Voters’ idea of fairness is strongly reciprocal â€“ something for something.” By obvious inference, a “something for nothing” society is the opposite of fair. And this view, interestingly, is expressed by Labour voters in pretty much the same proportion as all others.
Imagine that. After all these years of being morally blackmailed by the poverty lobby, harried by socialist ideologues and shouted at by self-serving public sector axe-grinders, the people are not cowed. Even after being bludgeoned by the BBC thought monitors and browbeaten by Left-liberal media academics with the soft Marxist view of a “fair” society â€“ from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs â€“ they have not bought it. They do not believe that if people are poor, it is necessarily society’s fault, and therefore society’s duty to deal with the consequences.
No, they say, as often as not, poverty is a consequence of lack of effort or self-control â€“ and, therefore, the individual must accept the consequences. And they do not believe that such character failings and their consequences should be disregarded in the apportioning of welfare or help from the state â€“ help which they know is made possible by the efforts of those who do “the right thing”. They still have a firm and undaunted conception of the “undeserving poor” â€“ a term so unfashionable that no politician would be capable of uttering it â€“ and would like such people to be made to accept their reciprocal obligation to society in return for any assistance from public funds.