"It was bad capitalism that got us into this mess - good capitalism that will get us out" was the theme of a fascinating lecture that Will Hutton gave at Liverpool University last week. This, the latest in a series of lectures on Burning Issues facing us today, provided everyone who attended with much food for thought. Above all, business leaders and managers who were previously unfamiliar with his views - passionately and persuasively expressed - were given the chance to take a fresh look at the way we run society, and the way we run businesses in particular.
In this seminar, sponsored by Weightmans, Hutton built on principles that he advanced in his 2010 book Them and Us. A key argument is that reward should be geared to effort, skill and contribution to the collective, rather than sheer luck. There isn't much room for doubt, surely, that top people's pay has (notably in the finance sector) got out of kilter with widespread perceptions of fairness. Hutton is a firm believer in "just deserts" and he quoted enough statistics about the relationship between UK debt and GDP to test the nerves of even the most ardent enthusiasts for austerity-as-panacea among the audience.
Hutton did, though, work hard to establish a convincing case for optimism. He draws comfort from the pace of technological innovation in particular - pointing out the growth in wealth across the country over the past couple of centuries, and arguing not only that this derives from exploitation of new technologies, but that the pace of development is accelerating fast. And he points to recent examples such as the internet, social networking and a new invention by an Oxford colleague of his - he flourished a small device that looked about the size of a Smartphone - that might revolutionise diagnosis of health conditions.
There is a snag, though. We all believe in fairness, but what different people mean by fairness is infinitely variable. Polly Toynbee's views, say, tend to be very divergent from George Osborne's (although intriguingly, she has this week expressed strong support for the Chancellor's proposal to cap tax relief for charitable donations, which does raise the alarming possibility that they might both be wrong.) One question for any leader or business manager, faced with a practical problem that needs to be solved is: how can I achieve a solution that is not only fair in my opinion, but will generally be accepted by the people I lead as fair?
Easier said than done. Many of us share views about fairness on some issues, and strongly disagree about others. To take just one employment law example; many thousands of unfair dismissal cases are brought each year, with strongly conflicting views on either side about whether or not the employer's behaviour was reasonable. A tribunal has to come down on one side or the other, but often the decision will be influenced by a rather subjective view on the members' part about the evidence they have heard. And that is probably inevitable.
Will Hutton believes - and he is not alone among economists - that part of the solution to the debt crisis lies in inflation that reduces the level of debt to manageable proportions. But is that really fair, for instance on retired people, or those on fixed incomes, who might be dragged into severe financial hardship as a result?
Quite rightly, Hutton made the point in his lecture that the future is unknowable - though he did predict that the current Prime Minister and Chancellor will be the last Conservatives to hold those offices for many years to come. None of us know what form the future will take, though one can hazard a guess that much of it will prove to have been as hard to foresee as Twitter was 20 years ago.
But leaders and business managers who don't know what the future holds still have to take crucial decisions in the here and now - decisions that may affect the lives of many people. Hutton is surely right to argue that their approach should be guided by fairness. But there remains a huge amount of room for debate as to what that actually means in practice.