Fairness & the big society
Nick Robinson says the Tory conference was “almost entirely unmoved when again and again David Cameron tried to evoke the spirit of The Big Society.”I suspect there’s a reason for this, which is to be found in this new paper (pdf). It says:Individuals who believe they were treated unfairly in an interaction with another person are more likely to cheat in a subsequent unrelated game.They found this by getting 502 students at the University of Munich to play a simple dictator game. After the game, the students were asked to toss a coin, being paid €1 if it landed heads and €3 if tails, and to report the toss of the coin themselves. 74.5% of subjects reported tails, which suggests that a large number of them are prepared to lie for a measly €2. But here’s the thing. Of those who received nothing from the dictator game, 82% reported tails on the coin toss, whereas only 73% of those who thought that game had treated them fairly reported tails. The message here is that if people feel they are unfairly treated, they are more likely to behave anti-socially, even towards those who had not wronged them.What’s this got to do with the big society? Plenty. The big society asks people to “step forward…come together…contribute” - in other words to be pro-social.But the Munich experiments show that this is less likely to happen if people feel they are being treated unfairly, even in different contexts.And here’s the problem. There are two groups of people - many of them Tories - who have the time on their hands to do more voluntary work, but who are feeling unjustly treated now. I refer to housewives of moderately high earners who will have their child benefit cut, and to retired savers who face negative real interest rates. At the margin, these people’s sense of unfairness could make them less likely to contribute to the big society.Now, you might say that such people are not really the victims of injustice. This is irrelevant in this context. What matters is that many feel as if they are. And this is a barrier in the way of the big society.