Pensions, fairness & ideology
We have - very largely, if not entirely - lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical of morality…we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one [moral view] against another. (After Virtue, p2, 8)
Let’s be clear. The issue here is not about the “affordability” of public sector pensions; their cost is projected to fall as a share of GDP in coming years. Nor, really, is it about deficit reduction. Even if this were necessary, there are thousands of ways of cutting spending without touching pensions. Instead, what we have is a clash of two conceptions of fairness, of justice. To strikers, the demand that they pay more in pension contributions is unfair because it represents a breach of the implicit contract on which they took the job. To their opponents, the existing generous pensions are unfair because they are much better than most private sector workers get.But as MacIntyre said, there is no rational way of weighing these competing claims. This problem is magnified by cognitive biases - leave aside the obvious vested interests - on both sides.On the strikers’ side, there’s the mix of loss aversion and status quo bias. I suspect that, if we were designing pension schemes from scratch, the government’s proposals would seem acceptable to public sector workers - being, as they are, better than many private sector workers get. But this is not the point of comparison. The proposals are framed relative to what they already have, and so appear as big losses. On the anti-strikers’ side, there’s a different bias - what might be called a resentment effect. Experiments show that people who feel ill-treated in one context are more likely to be ill-disposed to other, separate, people. So, people who have poor pension rights themselves are apt to resent generous public sector pensions, even though the latter don’t explain the former: the demise of private sector pensions has very little to do with teachers’ pensions. There’s no rational way of adjudicating these competing claims. It’s a matter of simple tribalism.In this context, the ConDems’ claim that public pensions are unaffordable - which was ably undermined by Evan Davis - is especially irksome. It is an attempt to disguise what is in fact a tribal position by a claim to some spurious objective “reality”. This, of course, is a standard ideological trick of the ruling class. As MacIntyre put it:
What purport to be objectively-grounded claims function in fact as expressions of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference (After Virtue, p107)
For years, governments and capitalists have been better able than unions to perform this ideological trick.