Journal article

'A fair go' in public policy

16 May 2014

Introduction: In the context of the 2013 retirement income review (CFLRI, 2013), Kathryn Maloney and Malcolm Menzies from the Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income put the question to me: what does ‘a fair go’ mean in public policy? I mentioned this in a chance conversation with Colin James, who suggested tackling the question in an active, verbal sense (‘a fair go’), rather than attempting to elaborate on ‘fairness’ as an abstract noun. Consequently, this paper does not propose ‘a theory of fairness’ as a proxy for, say, a theory of distributive justice, or a theory of social justice, even a non-ideal theory of justice (cf. Arvan, 2014; Simmons, 2010). My aim is more modest: to provide a framework for public reasoning in contexts where there is argument across the political spectrum about whether a public policy gives people who are affected by it ‘a fair go’. This approach is based on three assumptions:

1. A great deal of public policy-making involves arguments about who gets what, when and how, relative to others, and who pays (cf. Laswell, 1950).

2. These arguments take place within a society that exhibits deep diversity, including a plurality of values. People do not necessarily want, or value, the same things to the same extent, in the same way (Bromell, 2009a).

3    There is not and never will be a perfectly just world, or a perfect social system, or a perfect set of institutional arrangements and regulations. As Sen (2009) has argued, we need to abandon pretensions to ‘transcendental institutionalism’ and focus instead on advancing justice, rather than perfecting it. He proposes ‘government by discussion’: the exchange of public reasons to arrive at partial rankings and limited agreements about practicable options to make life better for people than it is now.

David Bromell is a Senior Associate of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies. He lectures in political philosophy and public policy in the School of Government. Since July 2013 he has been a Principal Advisor in the Strategic Policy team at Environment Canterbury. Previously he was a Principal Advisor and acting Chief Policy Advisor in the Ministry of Social Development.

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