This is fairly important

Richard Baker
Insights Newsletter
1 December, 2017

Voltaire wrote that one great use of words is to hide our thoughts.

I remembered this when Grant Robertson said the tax working group would improve “fairness” in the tax system. I don’t mean to suggest the Minister was dissembling or concealing some ulterior purpose. While fairness is part of the New Zealand kaupapa, literal “fairness” is however an unhelpful word. What does it mean?

Let me illustrate with reference to three traditional models of fairness; equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, and social justice for those in need. Each produces different results.

Let’s use the Rugby World Cup as the common denominator.

An apologist for equality of outcome would argue that fairness prevails when everything is shared equally. 

So the Rugby World Cup should be awarded to each country, say in alphabetical order, over successive years. With a sixteen team competition, each of the 16 competing nations would be the world champion once every 64 years. Be patient Zimbabwe.

This would be an absolute delight for Wales for whom world cup victory is oxymoronic. So too for Scotland, where more people think fondly of the English than play rugby.

A proponent of equality of opportunity would argue that on a level playing field the trophy belongs fairly to those who best use their resources and are smarter and harder working.

Alas, in rugby as in life, the field is seldom level. Under this approach the trophy would go to the wealthy (think England), the lucky (think France and Wayne Barnes), the unscrupulous (think Suzy the waitress) and the unnaturally endowed (think All Blacks).

A believer in social justice would argue that fairness requires the trophy to go where the need is highest. It is only fair that we look after the least fortunate first. This would benefit the Pacific Islands who survive on the occasional crumb from the rich rugby nations, the Italians who play with passion and little else, and the French who have to decide on match day which team turns up.

The moral? Pick your preferred type of fairness to pick your winner.

Let us hope the tax working group picks its type of fairness with care, clarity and explanation. Taxpayers deserve no less and fairness demands it.

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