Love will tear us apart?
Last year, the philosopher Stephen Asma wrote a book with a title designed to ruffle leftwing feathers: Against Fairness. He argues that in ‘our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges to like one person more than another, one thing over another, hiding them away as dirty secrets of our humanity’, going on to say that ‘we would all be better off if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness – indeed, if we favoured favouritism’.
This is strong stuff – nothing short of saying that love and fairness are two different things and that, like the paper and the stone, love trumps fairness. Most of us in Labour would disagree with that as a statement of political belief, but Asma’s claim is bigger than that. His is a claim based on biology, not ideology – not about how we would like things to be, but about how things are.
According to Asma, the human brain is simply wired to love things closer to us rather than to show fairness to everyone, however remotely we are related to them. On this basis, he says that public policy should work with the grain of the brain, and not go against it. We should accept that humans are hardwired to show favouritism and base our public policy on what is, not what could be. He claims that equality of opportunity is still possible, but that the pursuit of status-blind fairness for all is doomed to failure by seeking to ignore our biological heritage – which it is impossible for us to do.
This is heavy stuff for an August blogpost! But let’s ignore Asma’s political claim – that public policy should go with the grain of human biology – and just assume that Asma’s claims about the hardwiring of the human brain are correct. I am no behavioural psychologist, but they at least seem plausible. When I hear a radio programme mention Walthamstow or York (where I represent and where I grew up), my attention is called in a way that it isn’t when I hear Wolverhampton or Yeovil. Is it too much to argue that a shared bond of place makes me care a little more for the people who live there than for people who live in places I have never even visited (but who I am sure are fine people)?
If this is true, it has profound implications for all of our public policy, and for our public services. Some of that is very disturbing. If we are hardwired to care for our own over others, then why should we support international development aid? To argue that would be to accept Asma’s political claim. But if we don’t do that, and just accept his biological claim, some very interesting questions open up for our public services, and for Labour in local government.
If we accept that the human brain will always favour love over fairness, why do local authorities pay staff and companies to look after the elderly but do not pay neighbours to train as carers and to look after elderly people in their street? This would accept that the bonds of community and friendship are emotions worth supporting which can prompt a better standard of care than a reliance only on cold, impartial fairness. This is not an argument for the ‘big society’ – volunteers replacing paid, professional services. But it is an argument for considering a wider variety of approaches to care, benefitting the elderly and potentially saving public money.
This approach could also change the way we interact with our residents and our neighbourhoods. At the moment, we rely on traffic cameras and road signs to reduce speeding in residential streets. We seek to appeal to people’s fear of punishment and general desire to do the right thing. But if love trumps fairness, why don’t we pay families to visit their neighbours to persuade them not to speed in their own street? If the human brain is hardwired to respond favourably to people who we know or have a connection to, why not exploit this to achieve our public policy aims?
Labour people should not be scared of this approach and we should not see it as simply reheated Toryism. The Tories view the ‘big society’ as a way of undermining local democracy and services. We should use a better understanding of what makes people tick to save our public services. We face unprecedented demand – an aging population, higher unemployment, a more demanding electorate – with less funding to meet that demand. Anything which helps to deliver more for less should be music to our ears, particularly when the people who stand to gain the most are those with the greatest need.
An approach which stresses the value of relationships and human connections should hold no fears for us. This is Labourism at its best. Ian Curtis and Joy Division sang of ‘changing our ways, taking different roads’. If we do that, facing new challenges with new approaches, then love won’t tear us apart – it will make us stronger, and Britain fairer.
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
local government, public services