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What’s fair?

April 20, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of fairness and how our culture decides on what’s fair. I think lots of arguments I have with other people come down to the fact that we have fundamentally different opinions on what’s fair, so I think it’s useful to consider having that argument instead of whatever argument we were engaged in. By the way, this actually makes me like people more- it’s not that they are mean, selfish people, but that they have a different underlying theory of fairness that they are loyal to.

For example, I have met people who claim that the government should only be in charge of protecting ownership rights and prosecuting criminals and that it should stay out of every other realm. The question of how to help people out with student debt loans then is certainly moot until we first talk about whether government should “care” about helping people at all for any reason.

The question, stop, and frisk policy is an example of a policy that our local government has taken on that reflects our shared understanding of fairness; in this case, we care more about preventing crimes, so being fair to victims, then we do about the suspects of crimes.

Tax law is another issue where we, as a society, have decided what’s fair and made it into policy. The fact that these laws change drastically over time – the top tax rate of 70% just a few decades ago is a far cry from what we’ve been seeing recently – indicates that we also change our mind about what is fair depending on conditions.

I’m not saying anything deep here- we all know that things change, and we no longer spend time watching slaves get killed in an arena, because it no longer jives with our concept of justice (although the NFL can sometimes seem a bit like that). I’m just trying to differentiate, and have other people agree to differentiate, between the rules we’ve constructed, in the form of policies and laws of the land, and the underlying and evolving moral decisions that we make as a community.

One more example, because I think it’s a good one for thinking about fairness and systems of rules (again not new). Imagine we have 100 people working on a farm, making their living, and we introduce a technology that allows 1 person to now do the work that 100 people did previously.

On the one hand it’s in some sense fair to keep one person on the farm, someone who is skilled enough to use this new tractor or whatever it is, and lay off the other 99 people.

But in a larger sense we still have the same output, so the same number of resources, and 99 people out of work means 99 people don’t have access to those resources, which doesn’t actually seem so fair. In the best of worlds (a world of textbook economic growth) those 99 people would go find new jobs in new fields and we wouldn’t have to worry about them. But what if those new jobs don’t exist, or exist only for the 23 people who have some other technical skills? This is when the rules we have created really matter, and our reasons for them need to be weighed and discussed.

Categories: musing
  1. JamesL
    April 20, 2012 at 8:34 am

    When I read your first sentence “… how our culture decides on what’s fair”, I immediately thought of this book:

    http://amzn.com/0199832706

    which makes the assertion that fairness is historically not a fundamental value of the United States: freedom is the overriding foundational value, which does not imply fairness and which is frequently at odds with fairness. The contrast is drawn with New Zealand, another English-speaking, democratic, ex-British colony, in which the value of fairness has historically been treated as fundamental, superseding freedom in the national psyche. A very interesting work of comparative history which has changed the way I think about US politics.

  2. Ray
    April 20, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Great post. Some background – for the past 40 or so years, the Rawls/Nozick debate has dominated the discourse on what underlying principle of fairness should guide society.

    Rawls thinks fairness lies in maximizing the welfare of the least-well-off in society. This requires a pretty vigorous state apparatus for redistributing wealth. Rawls’s A Theory of Justice provided a groundwork for modern American liberalism. See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Justice

    Nozick wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which has become one of the canonical texts of modern libertarianism, in response to Rawls. See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchy,_State,_and_Utopia

    Nozick thinks fairness lies in allowing people freedom to pursue their own self-interests. It follows that only a minimalist state framework, designed to prevent coercion, is desirable. To JamesL’s comment about freedom being the foundational American value over fairness, Nozick might respond that freedom IS fairness.

    I’ve been trying for years to develop a theory that synthesizes these two positions and thereby solves politics and wins me endless accolades and the affections of women, but alas, I just can’t seem to get there. (yet)

    Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that all disputes about social policy reduce to this type of disagreement – I think a decent percentage of the time, people actually are just mean and selfish and looking for ways to rationalize it.

  3. cuvy2k
    April 23, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    From a slightly different perspective, but I still think very relevant – Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers deals with societal pressures and their effect on security. (http://www.schneier.com/book-lo.html). He seems to specifically avoid assigning “right” and “wrong” to actions, and instead looks at actions in terms of compliance and deviation from the socially accepted norm.

  4. S
    April 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Being a pragmatist to the core, I like to subordinate “what’s fair” to “what works”. Things being unfair cause people to not be bought into the system, they don’t invest or produce at the level consistent with what would be (in a better, fairer system) in their own self-interest. Likewise, being too focused on fairness interferes with what works to some degree, if you buy that this is some element of the overgenerous state in some European countries.

    So I’d ask what is fair enough, versus what is a high enough potential return on personal risk and effort. Regardless what you think the proper balance is, I think putting those ideas against each other, rather than considering fairness in a vacuum, is a better question.

    • April 25, 2012 at 3:06 pm

      Really good point, thanks. It needs to be practical and reasonable. I’m also a pragmatist. An idealistic pragmatist, to be sure.

  1. April 20, 2012 at 8:13 am
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