Saturday, July 10, 2010

The problem with "fairness"

Is it fair that people should be allowed to get on by making the most of their talents?

A lot of people would agree that it is.

Is it fair if the gap between rich and poor in a society is not too great?

A lot of people would agree that it is.

And that is the trouble with fairness. It's not just that different people have conflicting ideas of what constitutes fairness. It's that most of us individually hold these conflicting ideas at the same time.

So while focus groups will enthusiastically support the idea of a political party standing for fairness, that support gives parties little clue as to which policies they should adopt to give fairness concrete form.


Andrew Hickey said...

I think that's one reason why we should tax unearned income far more than we do, and earned income less.
I don't have a problem with, say, Paul McCartney being incredibly rich. He got that money by making music that people wanted to hear, and no-one was forced to give him a penny.

But people making money by exploiting and widening already-existing inequalities - as much of the financial sector does, for example - isn't 'making the most of their talents', and nor is it 'fair' in any sense I understand that word.

Anonymous said...

They're not necessarily contradictory. It depends on what you mean by "get on"- there's no reason why one of the last scraps of "kingly power", power over the resources of this world, should be a reward for having talents.

Fairness would be democratic governance of those resources- from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Their need may change according to their ability, Marx never meant strict egalitarianism in property- he meant that property should cease to be the reason for existence, that talents shouldn't have to be governed by the immediate need to accumulate when socially useful talents could be rewarded democratically as a side affect of their use to society.

Julian said...

There has been too much talk of "fairness" in recent months and particularly at the election. Fairness is always what we want and unfairness is what the other lot want.

I doubt you would find a single seriously politician who doesn't believe in fairness. The fact that they all define it differently means it's a pointless term.

The test of a political slogan is whether you could imagine anyone campaigning for the opposite. How about "A Future Not Fair For All"? Who'd vote for that?

There is no such thing as an objective standard of fairness and it is a waste of time trying to find it.

Andrew Hickey said...

Anonymous: Unfortunately there's nothing 'democratic' about 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their need', unless you can democratically decide how able someone is and how much they need.

And while everyone having what they 'need' is a bare minimum for fairness, I personally quite like having things I don't need, like Doctor Who DVDs and internet access and coffee. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" is, for me, "Keep working as hard as you are now, but get less stuff". What's in it for me?

(I'm not justifying privilege there, BTW. My own income is almost exactly average, and my household income considerably below average. But a system in which people don't have things they don't need is by definition a subsistence economy).

A truly free market would, in fact, be a democratic distribution of money. The only problems with it are that a truly free market is completely impossible, that it would often get stuck in local maxima, and that it would lead to starvation because it *wouldn't* take 'need' into account.

Therefore the only sensible solution is to have a relatively free market, but regulated by the government, and including some mechanism to redistribute a portion to those at the bottom. We can disagree about how much one should redistribute (I suspect I'd argue for a rather larger portion than Jonathan would) but 'to each *at least* according to their needs' seems to cover the redistributive part of it more or less...

Jon said...

True, but like most things the weakness is also the strength. Because fairness is not prescriptive, it requires judgement. If there were simple rules to follow you'd just put it into law and be done with it.

In policy discussions, I would argue that any ideal easily interpreted in a dogmatic fashion is of dubious practical value, except to ideologues. This is the problem with equality - it has a mathematical interpretation that leaves no room for dialogue in some people's mind. Sometimes the only way to deal with groups claiming the one true way is to use language that makes it difficult.

Besides, even were the concept perfectly well defined I would still question the wisdom of using a single principle to guide complex discussions.

Incidentally, you don't explain why there need be any conflict between those two ideas of fairness. Assuming conflict rather than assuming compatibility is also of dubious value.

Anonymous said...

As above, I'd question whether those premises are contradictory, though I agree there is clearly tension between their implications.

I think we need to distinguish between beliefs that are held and available to consciousness as such, and those that are implied by other of our held beliefs but not conscious.

@Julian - I agree that the word fairness covers a multitude of sins in our politics at the moment, and of course that there is no essential, necessary standard. But does it follow that it is pointless to seek one? What is politics if it isn't, at some level, an attempt to establish normative standards?

Anonymous said...

There's nothing democratic about a market, "free" or not. Private property is nothing more than a transmutation of feudal property with the feudal obligations cut away. It is privilege in itself, the denial of those natural resources to others for no justifiable reason.

""Keep working as hard as you are now, but get less stuff". What's in it for me?"

Why should I want anything to be "in it" for you? We're already the most priveliged creatures on this planet when it comes to property. It's those Ivory Coast kids working 100 hour weeks to bring us cheap chocolate and so on that are the harshest victims.

But even for the richest, I think it unhealthy to design a system whereby talents have to be mutilated so as to become marketable. Such potential wasted by inclusion in a system governed by greed and instituted illegitimately.

Andrew Hickey said...

Merely making unsupported assertions is not actually the same thing as making an argument.

As for why you would want something to be 'in it for me', if you were actually interested in democracy at all, you'd realise that getting a majority of people to support a policy that says "You should work harder and get less in return" is quite difficult.

You're also just *wrong* about the 'natural resources' aspect. In pretty much every piece of private property above the absolute basics of survival, the value comes not from the natural resources used, but from the work added to them (as Marx was more than aware). I am willing to pay £10 for a DVD not because of the value of the plastic and glass used in its manufacture, but because of the work put in by the writers, performers, camerapeople, etc.

In other words, private property is *the refusal to work without reward*.

As for the children in the Ivory Coast, workers in factories in China etc, I agree absolutely. But I believe the solution is not to bring everyone down to their level (they are clearly 'able' to work that hard, and they get what they 'need' to survive, after all), but rather to try to raise their living standard up to the same as mine (in so far as my own lifestyle is sustainable given environmental concerns).

Oranjepan said...

If it's fairness your looking for I'm less interested in the freeness of markets as a first step, rather just their openness - if they ain't open I can't access it whether or not I choose to participate when I get there.

Worrying about restrictions on my choices is neither here nor there if I can't get in.

So if it's not both open AND free then it'll never be fair.

Therefore the way to increase fairness is to make markets more liberal once you've made them more democratic, not the other way round.

By which token we may say free markets are liberal, that open markets are democratic and that fairness is libdem.