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.