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Posts Tagged ‘Fairness’

Fairness: What is it?

In Political economy, Political governance on 03/02/2012 at 1:40 pm

When one Tan Kin Lian was attempting a political career (while pretending not to do so) and, later, a presidential bid, the one thing that irritated me no end was his constant call for “fairness”. And when asked to define it, he said it is common sense.

I wish this had been written then so that I could post it, to get my blood pressure down.

Excerpts:

fairness is, as Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, puts it, “a concept invented so dumb people could participate in arguments”.

To get a “fair shot” is to be offered the opportunity to participate fully and succeed within the country’s institutions … Conservatives who strenuously object to the idea that the American system should aim at “equality of outcomes” will sometimes affirm “equality of opportunity” as an alternative. But this is a mistake. To really equalise opportunity requires precisely the sort of intolerably constant, comprehensive, invasive redistribution conservatives rightly believe to be required for the equalisation of outcomes. If one is prepared to accept substantial inequalities in outcome, it follows that one is also prepared to accept substantial inequalities in opportunity.

Getting a fair shot doesn’t require equalising opportunity so much as ensuring that everyone has a good enough chance in life. The content of “good enough” is of course open to debate, but most Americans seem to agree that access to a good education is the greater part of a “good enough” and thus fair shot. Naturally, there is strong partisan disagreement over the kinds of education reform that will do right by young Americans. And there is also disagreement over elements of a “fair shot” beyond education. For example, many liberals believe workers don’t have a fair shot at achieving a decent level of economic security without robust collective-bargaining rights. And many conservatives believe that an overly-strong labour movement invites outsourcing by raising domestic costs, and thereby deprives American workers of a fair shot at employment. There may be some fact of the matter about which policies are most likely to benefit students or workers. But if one is more fair then the other, how would we know?

What is it to do one’s “fair share”? In small groups, it’s clear enough. If my friend and I are shoveling the front walk, my fair share of shoveling, and his, is about half. Often we adjust for differences in ability. If I am big and strong and my friend is small and frail, his fair share may be as much as he can manage. That won’t mean that the whole remainder is my fair share, though. If we’re going to get the walk shoveled, I may have to do a bit more than my fair share. These things get complicated quickly. That’s why the question of what it means for an American do his or her fair share, qua citizen, is completely baffling.

Are you doing your fair share? How would one know? Actually, I just made myself feel slightly guilty for not going to med school and joining Médecins Sans Frontières. But unless government can come up with a way of taxing the leisure of people who aren’t doing as much as they might for kith and country, I reckon I’ll just stick to part-time pro blogging and let all you 9-to-5 suckers finance the necessary road-building and foreigner-bombing.

tempts me to agree with Mr Adams when he argues that fairness is “purely subjective”. But I’ll resist the temptation. I don’t think judgments of fairness are entirely whimsical. It really is unfair to eat more than your share of the cake, or to do less than your share of the shoveling, or to get ahead by flouting reasonable rules to which others faithfully adhere.

Not so easy, is it TKL?

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