I think I'm going to need to take a little lie down. I find myself in agreement with Richard Murphy on something. Even that it's only partial agreement is disturbing. He says:
I have read a lot about what fairness is of late. I have come to the conclusion that there is no objective answer to that. Whatever one person thinks is fair is, apparently, acceptable to at least someone, somewhere. That is why it comes to fairness majority opinions matter. On the welfare cap I have no doubt the majority will consider what is being proposed to be profoundly unfair if they realise just who is affected.
As to the definition of fairness, yes, he's correct: for this is the point of Adam Smith's linen shirt. That you cannot afford one does not make you poor. But if you live in a society where not being able to afford a linen shirt marks you as being poor then yes, in that society you are poor. So, what we all, collectively, think of as being fair is indeed what is fair in our society. And that is a malleable thing. We used to, vilely, think that it was just fine to hang people for stealing a loaf of bread to take but just one example from our past.
However, I disagree entirely with the idea that people are going to think that the benefits cap is indeed unfair. It is, after all, set at around median household income and we do, most of us, think of the welfare system as a safety net and not something that should provide a better than average lifestyle.
But we can go further than this. It was most amusing watching the reactions to the initial part of the benefits cap, the limitation on the amount of housing benefit that anyone could claim. The number was announced as being £400 and everyone exploded in outrage. What? You can't rent a rabbit hutch on that amount per month! The next turn of the news cycle brought the clarification that this wasn't a monthly limit, this was a weekly one. At which point the outrage exploded again: what, you mean people have been getting more than £20k a year, tax free, in subsidy for their rents? But, but, that's more than I earn!
We British have alwasy prided outselves on our sense of fair play: possibly in error. And we do indeed have ideas about what is fair within our own society and the definition of what is fair should properly be judged on what we collectively think is so. But recent experience tells me that the idea of a benefits cap is something that most of us will describe as fair. Simply because most of us do think that the welfare system is a safety net, nor either something that should provide a substantial lifestyle nor an exercise in social and economic re-engineering.