Heretical thoughts on fairness and why obliquity matters more

Lib Dems have traditionally put great faith in ‘fairness’.  They believe in it and, by extension, that an appeal to fairness will motivate voters; the “Four steps to a fairer Britain” campaign theme is merely the latest in a long line of such documents.

I have long harboured heretical thoughts about all this emphasis on fairness.   It’s not that I don’t value fairness; of course I do.   However, all my instincts tell me that it’s the wrong emphasis – voters are clearly unmoved and it plainly doesn’t work as a piece of political messaging.   So what’s going on?   This is something we need to understand.

The first problem with ‘fairness’ as an organising principle is that it has no agreed definition; it means whatever you want it to mean.   High Tories (and bankers) tend to view privileges as entitlements even though they are the very things that most liberals would regard as unfair.  When they talk of  ‘fairness’  they mean keeping their privileges and defending them from an ‘unfair’ redistribution to the undeserving.   It should be no surprise that such a context-dependent word has little political value.   I imagine that if you asked 100 voters what they rate as politicians’ greatest talent most would say ‘just talking’ and it would be a pretty safe bet that they would mean it in a pejorative way.   What people want are credible solutions, not woolly aspirations of uncertain meaning.

And when it comes to solutions, being overly focussed on ‘fairness’  simply doesn’t work.  

In trying to structure my thoughts about this in the absence of a suitable terminology all I could come up with was a metaphor.  Suppose you want to fly from London to New York.  Knowing that New York is west and south of London one might reasonably assume that setting course a little south of west would be the right answer.  And so it would be if standard Euclidian geometry applied – but it doesn’t because the Earth’s surface is a sphere, not a flat plane.  In spherical geometry the correct direction is the great circle route which goes roughly north-west from London.  It seems to me that politics is rather like this.   The obvious solutions do not work in the complex geometries of human space.

This was as far as I had got when, quite by chance (via this post on Yves Smith’s naked capitalism blog), I discovered that there is a word for this, obliquity, as explained in this 2004 article.  As its author, Prof John Kay, puts it:

Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

He goes on to illustrate his point with several examples including the sorry story of ICI which for many decades declared its objective as the “innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science“.   Over the years this had created great value for shareholders but in the early 1990s it decided to go for the direct approach, declaring its target to be to “maximise its value to its shareholders” and promptly lost the plot, declining from an industrial giant to a mid-cap in just 12 years.   That the geometry of human space is complex and non-Euclidian (as I had formulated the thought) should surely be obvious as is the corollary that indirect approaches are called for, but what does this mean for politicians who wish to make the world a fairer place?

The answer is surely that they must learn to understand the world as a complex mechanism with endlessly complex and ever-changing connections and feed-back loops operating beneath the surface.  They need to discover what underlying linkages are leading the world away from the sort of society they aspire to and devise policies that will reform these linkages.   Think of it as a car with tendency for the throttle to stick wide open; to make it safe you have to discover and fix the fault.

The idea that there is something is ‘broken’ in society is hardly novel.  What I do find curious is that so little energy appears to be directed to finding out what precisely is broken and that so much faith is placed in superficial analysis and conventional prescriptions.   Issues that may seem remote and unimportant to denizens of the Westminster Village are tangible to inhabitants of the real world.  The first politician to get to grips with the underlying linkages will find that support builds very fast as people begin to understand the logic. 

Footnote: by coincidence John Kay has a new book out this month called ‘Obliquity’.


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