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Putting capitalism in the fairness spotlight

What do we understand by fairness in relation to the capitalist system today? For me, it’s striking how we live in a time when the notion of being an ‘expert’ at something is under attack from some quarters, including elements of the mainstream media. It’s part of a strand of thinking that also plays into rejecting a western liberal model of society based on pluralism and tolerance.

The UK has a fabulously diverse population; that is part of its success story over many decades in the post-war era. But, what we hear so often today is about trying to sow division and undermine the good that flows from our differences and diversity, whether cultural or religious or ethnic or by gender or something else.

I believe we all have a duty today, when we hear that kind of rhetoric, to call it for what it is. We cannot allow the positives in our society to be undermined. In business, the focus is slightly different but the idea of rejecting elites and power bases is still there. The language we hear is often about cosy boardroom appointments and international elites. How credible and justified are such attacks? How can businesses pursue agendas that are transparently ethical as well as profitable? These are questions for our time. 

The Prime Minister said at the CBI conference that she is ‘unashamedly pro-business’ in her outlook and agenda. How will that manifest itself? And how do we square that with today’s wider politics? What version of business does she support? When it comes to fairer capitalism in part we are talking today about human rights and socially responsible supply chains. That touches on business widely because every business of scale buys services from other businesses and bears some responsibility for ensuring those outfits are run fairly from top to bottom. We should add here that any supply chain that can barely pay minimum wages at one end but can pay millions to top executives at the other is on some level unjust. In a free-market economy, the expectation is that business will deliver the wealth created by society – but not at any price. 

How do we overcome that? As things stand many feel there is too wide a gap between most people’s individual sense of altruism and care for others and the machinery of the world economy. Today’s business is necessarily global in our globalised world. But, this means that regulation by individual governments can only go so far, and that the intentions of individuals within businesses can get lost along the way. 

One thing that’s clear as we look to the future is that transparency needs to be worked at constantly. If we understand how individual leaders are rewarded and incentivised then it becomes possible to draw out any inconsistencies between someone’s professed values and the reality of how boardrooms apply reward structures. It’s one element among many that will no doubt remain in the spotlight in the years ahead.

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