Nick Harkaway

In the end, it comes down to people. We have to choose to make a fair society, because fairness is not a stable state to be reached and then forgotten about, it’s something that has to be created every single day. Identifying the hallmarks of a fair society is relatively simple: a fair society is one where the circumstances of your birth – gender, ethnicity, class, wealth, location – do not inhibit your possibilities or your access to available educational resources or healthcare; it’s one where the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is (at least by comparison with our present appalling chasm) quite small; it’s one where laws are public and applicable to all private individuals and all government departments and corporations in all circumstances, where those laws are written with an eye to producing fairness if the natures of these different actors make them incommensurable – and where the laws themselves are just. The mere act of legislating something in a parliament does not make it fair; it’s one where access to the systems of the law and the government is equal, so that wealth, position, and power cannot purchase the exercise (or absence of exercise) of that system, and where no group is irrationally marked out for greater scrutiny or interference than any other; and it is one where the vote of one person has the same weight as the vote of another, regardless of gender, ethnicity, class, wealth, or location. The difficulty is not defining fairness. The difficulty is in implementing those changes in a pre-existing structure which is already filled with inherited imperatives, incentives, inequalities and prejudices. Perhaps the most dangerous idea of all is that fairness can be a product purely of systemic change: that’s it’s possible to create a state or economic machine that is perfectly fair if left to function without human interference. No codified set of rules can ever entirely embrace the spectrum of human behaviour, and where humans do not fit in with such a system they will suffer unless there is equally human intervention to redirect the system into a proper course. With that in mind, it’s not hard to see small, simple changes we might make that undo damaging decisions. In the UK, much of what you might call our fairness apparatus has recently been dismantled as an expensive frippery. We might: reinstate proper legal aid so that access to justice is not contingent on wealth, or: do away with the secret sub-set of courts in which terror suspects may not know what evidence is presented against them in order to attempt to refute it – and nor may the bereaved families of our soldiers question the circumstances of their deaths. More grandly, we might acknowledge that the pattern of constituencies in the United Kingdom is an absurd tapestry of party self-interest, and that the political map in concert with the ‘first past the post’ method of electing representatives renders some votes valueless.  It’s possible that we might also profit by the use of ‘choice architecture’, more commonly known as ‘nudging’ – the practice of weighting questions in order to achieve a desired result, but there are caveats. It’s tempting to use this method – which can be as simple as printing the image of a fly on a urinal to induce restaurant customers to be more discriminating in their aim – to move the decisions of the populace towards particular policy goals. There is an argument that the organ donor programme should become ‘opt out’ rather than ‘opt in’, because most people never get a donor card not because they strongly object to donating their organs if they die but because they don’t want to consider their own mortality. Making the programme opt out deploys this same reluctance in favour of donation and potentially delivers much-needed organs to the transplant list. One might deploy the same tactics in other arenas, and hope to pass fairer laws, create fairer structures. But fairness does not emerge from structure if there is no will to create it – though structures can, of course, produce unfairness, and in such cases must be changed. The attempt to compel fairness with structure will ultimately result in a system corrupted from within. If the goal is a fairer society, there’s only one legitimate use for the nudge: to get people to consider the question before them in the light of what it will mean for them and for those they care about, and for the society they will inhabit – in other words, to give due thought and to place each important or less important decision in the context of fairness and even compassion, and to ask people to choose, daily and deliberately, a better culture. 

Nick Harkaway, Writer

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