Oxford Literary Festival: Will Hutton

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The beginning of Will Hutton’s talk was somewhat complicated by a series of microphone adjustments and a wave of audience migration from one end of Christ Church Hall to the other, where, it was promised, the volume was audible. I, fortunately, was located in a more than adequate spot, and therefore was able to enjoy the event in its entirety. Hutton checked with the audience before he launched into his talk, and after an enthusiastic show of hands encouraged him to proceed, he sketched the outline of his forthcoming book Them and Us, which will be published this September.

Hutton’s talk was packed with information and examples, while remaining accessible to the non-economist; the argument he threaded through focused on the importance of fairness – a principle, he says, which underlines our appreciation of the NHS and can explain many of the current problems in society. We need, he explained, to restructure capitalism around the principle of fairness. As a long-term lover of all things left I am always unsurprised when I find myself persuaded by arguments framed in the language of fairness, but Hutton made a concerted effort to outline how his argument could be embraced across the political spectrum – fairness as getting what you deserve.

Hutton argued that fairness is inherently appealing to human nature: we understand that reward and punishment ought to be distributed according to how much effort we have put in. For this reason, Hutton claims, the principle of inheritance tax is misunderstood by George Osbourne and the Conservatives – it is not a ‘death tax’ but rather a ‘we are all sharing in your good luck tax’. People’s place in society is the luck of the draw, and whatever cannot be directly attributed to our own hard work is a consequence of this luck – the inherent appeal of fairness means that we can understand that there is something wrong with the arbitrariness of limitations imposed in this way.

I remain to be convinced that presenting the privileged with the inherent appeal of fairness could convince them to support increased redistribution, lower wages or education reform – fairness after all, may be understood by everyone, but so it seems, are other conflicting values, including special concern for one’s own life and family. However, Hutton certainly illustrated that an argument, at least, is required to show why it is acceptable for one’s life to be determined so completely by the accident of one’s birth. He extended his argument about the inherent value of fairness to argue for the instrumental value of helping people to break from self-perpetuating circles of poverty: a society which makes the best use of all of its citizens will be a more productive society.

Hutton’s passion for his arguments was expressed through the urgency in his voice and the accompanying energetic gesticulation – a rallying cry for the left slightly incongruous in the sumptuous setting of Christ Church Hall, but certainly a relief for those of us often concerned by the lack of vitality amongst the intellectual Left. Moments in the speech would not have been out of place at a protest or demonstration, and I felt a little disappointed that the audience were mostly respectable and middle aged, clapping politely at the end but doubtless went home with every intention of voting for David Cameron.

Hutton’s call for a fairer society is grounded on firm foundations, with examples drawn from historical precedent, and a convincing grasp of the accompanying political and economic considerations. The outline for change, both in theory and in terms of concrete steps, is both coherent and well considered: only when capitalism is underlined by a concern for fairness can it (and society) hope to survive in tact. The brushstrokes with which Hutton painted this society were, understandably, very broad – restructuring society in the space of an hour is a stretch for the best of us. If his book can deliver the quality of content Hutton gave us reason to expect with this talk, then we should be excited indeed for the date of publication.

 

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