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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 13:20 GMT
A moral wage for firefighters?

Do the firefighters have a moral case?

When Tony Blair wrinkles his nose and pulls up his upper lip like a rabbit encountering a particularly noxious slug in its lettuce supper you know he's been asked a question that he regards as particularly stupid.

I happened to fall foul of the prime ministerial nose-wrinkle sometime ago after asking whether he would miss Leo during some particularly long foreign trip.

It was a fairly daft and tabloid inspired question and I deserved the nasally expressed contempt.

But I sat up and took notice when last week he was asked about the case for a "moral wage" for the firefighters and the Blair nostrils went into a disdainful wriggle.

Beckham and Bowie

His reply was rather bland about how it would be "nice" if we could all pay ourselves what we want but his feelings were clear: wages and morality don't mix and the market rules, OK?

Striking firefighters
How much are they worth?
Funnily enough much of the British public appears to be profoundly Old Labour on the subject.

We've all heard complaints over the years that David Beckham or David Bowie don't "deserve" to earn such a tremendous whack.

Nurses or teachers "deserve" far more than they actually get.

If the PM "deserves" a 40% rise then why don't the firefighters.

This is of course a Marxist argument: "From each, to each" and all the rest of that stuff.

Social justice

Even when not perverted by greed and other human traits, it seemed to fail spectacularly whenever anyone tried to put it into practice.

Both Conservatives and New Labourites like Mr Blair (and no, they're not one and the same thing) brush this argument aside as rather sentimental and trite.

People get paid what the market can bear and some loose sense of social justice doesn't take into account economy of scale.

The prime minister can get a 40% rise because there is only one of him but if the firefighters get the same it would cost a heck of a lot more.

Of course the market pays people more if there is a shortage of skills.

And there is a big shortage of teachers and nurses, if not firefighters. But that is not a moral case.

Moral wage

The trouble is social democracy exists to ameliorate the unfairness of capitalism.

Now, you know and I know that New Labour is both more and less than social democracy.

But most Labour MPs and supporters are social democrats even if the entriest vanguard, to coin a phrase, isn't.

But how can they, or any society, buck the market and pay "a moral wage"?

How would they work out what it was? How do you measure the worth of nurses against teachers against firefighters against dustpersonages? Let alone estate agents, journalists and venture capitalists?

Does the state tack on a bit of cash for doing something socially useful, and how would you judge that?

I'm reminded of one of Douglas Adams' little stories within his "hitchhiker" series where a planet fills a spaceship with its most useless citizens and blasts them off on a spurious mission, including telephone hygienists.

The planet's population is wiped out by a plague spread through the earpiece of telephones.

I have no answers, but I'm eager to hear your thoughts about the morality of pay.

What do you think?

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