Hutton calls for more fairness; but how can his will be done?

On the evening of Wednesday 2nd May, the echoing, vast nave of York Minster was the stage for Will Hutton’s Ebor lecture, entitled ‘It was Bad capitalism that got us into this mess, Good capitalism will get us out’.

And stage it was; after a typically impressive Ebor introduction, Hutton proceeded to regale us with his ideas with what can only be described as effervescent and infectious enthusiasm. During questions one member of the audience even asked if he’d be running for PM (to their disappointment, his rather tacit response was that at 61, he thought not).

Will Hutton calls for a rejuvenation of the social contract ©York St John University

He ran us through his main notion that fairness is at the heart of British society as a core belief, and for too long we have focused purely on economic growth without reviewing our social values. He called for a strengthening of our currently ‘threadbare’ social contract, and more focus on innovation in business, encouraging us all to invest in the high risk ventures of business start ups, rather than leaving all the risk to the individuals and bankers on our behalf.

Throughout, Hutton rather masterfully interweaved religious and local references. For example, he described how George Osborne’s first budget was premised on a belief that the economy would rise like Lazarus from the dead, instead calling for more money to fund innovation rather than a simple narrow focus on deficit reduction.

His conviction in these ideas was tangible and convincing and his focus on fairness and proportionality throughout offered what sounded like a very well-informed and considered set of ideas that had a 400-strong applause rising up to the medieval vaults above.

It did get me wondering though; how would his ideals of this fairness be translated in today’s society realistically, without being fundamentally unfair? It is all very well to plug money into innovation, encouraging us all to invest in societal risk and push our principles on bankers more through better enforced regulation. It’s all very well to support inheritance tax, and push the ‘you get what you’re due’ maxim, but surely that depends on what variable you are measuring. If we are talking money, fine. You do a good job; you get paid proportionally and don’t earn ridiculously more than your actions are worth to society. Though how can you measure people’s non-monetary contribution to society? Would you want to tax someone to the eyeballs who has inherited their parents’ wealth, but equally dedicates their life to societal causes? Surely if people were only judged fiscally that could facilitate a fundamental move away from any notion of societal camaraderie that Hutton is encouraging. And who would decide what ‘societal worth’ is anyway?

During his lecture, Hutton referenced Orwell numerous times. One has to wonder that if his well-intentioned, fairness-focused ideal was implemented, all of us would be equal, but through the difficulty of actually applying it, some may end up more equal than others.

_The next Ebor lecture is entitled 'Moral Communities in a Society of Strangers: turning social theories into practical politics' to be given by Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs, The Archbishops’ Council. June 13th, 7pm, York St John University. _

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