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Fairness and inequality

from David Ruccio


Is it any surprise, as Christina Starman, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom argue, that fairness is not the same thing as equality?

There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness.

Still, I think, many people today are bothered by both—economic unfairness and grotesque levels of economic inequality. 

Let me explain. As I have written before, I’m not particularly convinced of the idea being promoted by Starman et al. and by other evolutionary psychologists that fairness is part of humans’ biological inheritance. Instead, I’m more inclined to look in the direction of history and society.

Fairness is, I think, a concept that is part of bourgeois society, which is created and disseminated in a wide variety of discourses and sites, including economics. (To be clear, there may be other notions of fairness in human history, outside and beyond bourgeois society. My point is only that capitalism has its own particular notions of fairness, and they’re the ones that motivate our current “fairness instinct.”)

Fairness is an important part of the self-justification of bourgeois society. For example, market outcomes are considered fair because sovereign individuals are free to engage in voluntary transactions, which result in equal exchanges. That’s an idea that is created and reproduced throughout contemporary society, especially in mainstream economics.

So, yes, individuals within contemporary capitalism are constituted, at least in part, by certain notions of fairness, which they express in a wide variety of contexts, from participating in the ultimatum game to making a distinction between “takers” and “makers.”

By the same token, it’s not particularly shocking that those same individuals agree there should be some degree of inequality in economic outcomes. That’s also part of capitalism’s self-justification, that “fair” processes will produce unequal results. So, people seem to agree, not everyone can or should receive the same income or have the same wealth. We have different abilities, needs, desires, and circumstances, so the discourse goes, resulting in—perhaps even requiring—different amounts of income and wealth.

But then, of course, income inequalities have become so obscene—so unjustified by any conceivable differences in abilities, needs, desires, and circumstances—that, in the name of fairness, people demand more equality.

That’s how I think we need to reconcile the ideas of fairness and equality—not, as Starman et al. would have it, that people are bothered by fairness but not by inequality, but instead that bourgeois notions of fairness are so challenged and disrupted by existing levels of inequality people demand perhaps not perfect but certainly much more equality than exists today.

The real question is not whether there’s a “universal moral concern with fairness.” Instead, it’s whether the existing system can deliver on its promise to create fair (and, with them, more equal) outcomes—or, alternatively, whether it’s necessary to imagine and create a different set of economic and social institutions, which will actually fulfill that promise of fairness and at the same time deliver much more equality than exists in the United States today.

  1. April 13, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    To me the issue of capitalism, and the normative market logic it engenders, is all about the issue of fairness. You are right, too many people just accept the outcomes of markets. This, I believe, is because the understanding of market dynamics is dominated by capitalist inspired pedagogy. What if everyone had a clear understanding that unfettered competitive markets produce invariant outcomes as described by the physics of energy distribution in liquids or gases (Weiner process)?

    I’m no believer in biological wiring absent an adequate exploration of sociocultural causality. Marvin Harris’ four biophysical constants still seem adequate as a limit on biological explanation.

    • April 14, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      Only under some assumptions about what capitalist free markets are is it true they are equivalent to a Weiner process. What is interesting is that the real economic system now around (which is an approximation of what could be called unfettered capitalism or free markets, rational choice, self interes, perfectn info and compeititon) actually are modeled well by a weiner process.

      however, a correlation is not a cause. One can get the exact same results assuming basically the opposite of a weiner process.

      This is like if i see a whole lot of pennies on the floor and find there are 50/50 heads/tails i can say that was created by a random weiner-like process. But i can get same thing by simply putting peeneis on the floor and by hand making sure they are 50/50 h/t.

      Formal ‘pedagogy’ is only one source of understanding—alot of people get their knowledge of the market because they live in it.

      There are a million (or so) psychological/economic/biological studies of where people get their views of farirness, as well as capitalism and markets. Fairness also varies—eg some people are pro capitalism but anti gay rights and animal rights, some tend towards socialism and sharing but may have a social hierarchy in which womyn, gays, children, other races are treated in ways others see as unfair.

  2. April 14, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    Thaddeus Stevens, the American Civil War Member of the House of Representatives from PA spoke to the issues of fairness, justice, and equality elegantly and bluntly. These were from him practical matters. “The future condition of the conquered power depends on the will of the conquerer.” Even if the conquered people of the South did not want equality, justice, and fairness for the Freedmen, it would be forced on them. Speaking in support of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution he said, “I do not hold with equality in all things; only equality before the law.” As for justice for the South in 1865 Stevens said, “Strip the proud nobility of their bloated estates, reduce them to a level with plain republicans, send forth to labor, and teach their children to enter the workshops or handle the plow, and you will thus humble proud traitors.” For Stevens fairness, justice, and equality were established by the people or their elected representatives. A effort only successful occasionally. The historian Yuval Harari agrees, saying in his book Sapiens, “The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair.” They generally arranged people into groups, by race, gender, wealth, etc. ranking these from highest to lowest in terms of power, privilege, and prestige. Fundamental point, if any groups want more than these hierarchies they’re categorized into their only option is to fight for the changes.

  3. April 14, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    I believe that the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of energy in liquids and gasses and Weiner process in economics not only have similar distributions but have discrete causal mechanisms that somehow must share a similar mathematical identity. Where things change is among the wealthiest. They often have more income and wealth than a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution would suggest. Why? The answer might lay in simple political economy. At the highest level, institutional arrangements along with law and policy all become rigged. Market competition is replaced by agreements implemented in law and contract as reflected by social power i.e. C. Wright Mills ‘Power Elite’. A national economy is a collection of regional economies that, taken together, exist in a nested hierarchy of power elites. By extension, the world system set of economies reflect arrangements among contending national power elites. All this, of course, is a speculative arrangement of patterns (distributions). Penrose tiles anyone?

    • April 14, 2017 at 6:19 pm

      there are basically rigorous econophysics models that basically say what you said–though the rigorous ‘causal mechanisms’ are a long term research issue (but basically most stuff is a version of boltzmann’s early causal mechanism, which is ergodic theory—these basically say ‘causal mechanics’ favored by economists are irrelevant due to law of large numbers—people may make all kind s of rational or irrational choices but it doesnt matter in the long run—-leads to same thing. plan for retirement, or dont bother. . i think penrose (and precursors wang tilings) are universal computers (like CA). One can already rewrite all the laws of physics in the form of an electrical network, so i imagine one could write down an economy as some sort of dynamic quasicrystal evolution.

  4. patrick newman
    April 14, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    People can accept inequality provided it is not too extreme and they are not suffering from severe deprivation. An equal opportunity society is likely to be seen as fair even with a considerable degree of inequality. Most Western societies are far from having equal opportunity, especially in education. It is in this area where very wealthy individuals can create dynastic privilege and advantage that rolls on through the generations. It can only be modulated by wealth taxes and the abolition of private schools or their excellence being reserved for the disadvantaged and the deprived. A related angle is the contribution to the betterment of society by very wealthy individuals or as Swift put it “that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” For politicians substitute billionaires! Indeed just when did these billionaires last contribute to the success of their own businesses. They have become rentiers and dilettantes!

    • April 14, 2017 at 6:23 pm

      what billionaires (eg Gates, Soros, Musk Thiel) contribute i dont know really. I may start a crowdfunding campaign to help rehabilitase the impression of billiobnaires—i hoep to raise 1$B and then give say 10% of it away to cahrity to show we arent all renteirs and dilletants.

  5. J Ruivo
    April 18, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Yes, I am bothered by both.

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