This Way and That Way: Fairness

A major debate we as a society have been having in one form or another for the past 200 years is whether or not we ought to redistribute some wealth from the rich to the poor. At the risk of caricature, the left argues that it’s unfair for the rich to have as much money as they do while there are people dying of starvation in the streets, while the right argues that it’s unfair to take the rich’s hard-earned money to give to some lazy bums who’ve never worked a day in their lives. A key thing to notice is that both sides frame their arguments in terms of fairness, but are they really talking about the same thing when they say “fairness”? I don’t think they are, and this is the key to understanding their disagreement. In this essay, I will not try to defend any particular conception of fairness, but rather try to make clear the core motives each side has for seeking fairness, how that leads them to their conception of it, and why each side has some valuable insights on this debate. 

Liberal fairness. Source: Craig Froehle, “The Evolution of an Accidental Meme”

This picture created by Craig Froehle does a great job of viscerally, intuitively conveying the liberal conception of fairness. The left side of the picture isn’t fair to a liberal because the short boy, let’s call him Sam, can’t see the game. Since there are enough boxes to let him see the game, and it doesn’t do any harm to the tall boy, let’s call him Timmy, to give his box to Sam, since he can still see the game, why not do that? Giving Sam the box makes him better off and no one worse off, while withholding it from him makes him worse off and no one better off. In this conception, inequality becomes wrong when it causes harm to those who have less, and this harm is what they term unfairness. For this reason, I’ll call it “Fairness-as-caring,” because I think it is motivated by Jonathan Haidt’s “care/harm” foundation.

Despite its claims, the picture doesn’t capture very well the conservative conception of fairness. But it can, if we embellish it with a bit of a story. Imagine each of the kids in the picture does chores to earn an allowance, which each of them uses to buy a box. Now imagine one of their parents walks by and, seeing that Sam couldn’t see over the fence, stepped in and took away Timmy’s box to give to Sam. Now, it starts to seem a bit more “unfair” to take away Timmy’s box, which he spent his hard earned money to buy, in order to give it to Sam, who didn’t think ahead to save his allowance or do extra chores to get the extra box he would need to see over the fence. Even if it results in Sam being worse off, and even if that outcome was partially out of his control (because his shortness, which he didn’t choose, is a factor), I take it it still doesn’t seem right to take away, by force, the fruits of Timmy’s labor to give to someone who didn’t put in the work to deserve it. If Timmy were to give up his box voluntarily, that would be different (and one might even argue that he ought to give up his box, or at least that he would be kind of a jerk not to), but if he doesn’t, no one else has the right to take it from him, because he worked for it.

When conservatives talk about fairness, they’re usually talking about this kind of fairness, which Jonathan Haidt calls “fairness as proportionality.” To get a feel for this kind of fairness, it helps to think about common phrases like: “the law of karma,” “what goes around comes around,” “you get what you deserve,” “you reap what you sow,” etc. According to Haidt, this kind of fairness evolved, at least in part, to help solve the “free-rider problem” of group cooperation: in any cooperating group, each individual has an incentive to “cheat” by benefiting from cooperation without contributing, or by contributing less than their fair share, but if everyone does that, then cooperation fails and no one benefits. So, any successful group has to have mechanisms in place to keep people from free-riding, and a sensitivity to and visceral dislike of cheaters is one of several that we as a species have evolved.

Of course, liberals care about this type of fairness, too. For example, a common liberal argument for redistribution is that the rich didn’t really earn what they have (because they got it by luck/inheritance/etc.), and therefore they don’t deserve it. But conservatives care about it more (Haidt p. 213). Their main concern is to preserve the stability of society, and to them, freeloaders are a big danger to that. Those who contribute more deserve more, and those who contribute less deserve less. Anything else threatens the incentive structure that allows cooperation to continue, “which would cause society to unravel” (p. 210).

However, fairness-as-caring provides an important corrective to fairness as proportionality. Not everyone ends up on the bottom because they didn’t contribute. Sam did his fair share, but he still can’t see because he’s shorter. So, the liberal says, someone should step in and correct that injustice, that undeserved harm. To the liberal, it seems like no one could possibly deserve to have as much as the extremely rich, or as little as the extremely poor, because no one could possibly be that good, or that evil.

So, to the conservatives out there, realize that liberals truly are trying to do what they believe is fair: they see poverty as an unjust punishment for a crime the poor didn’t commit, and richness as an unjust reward that the rich never earned and therefore have no right to. Imagine how you would feel if your son or daughter got a bad grade in school because their teacher hated them for no reason. That’s how liberals feel when they think about poverty. They think it’s completely unjust, and no one could possibly deserve it. And when they look at the rich, who have so much, it just doesn’t seem possibly that anyone could deserve that much wealth, and so it seems to them like they must have somehow cheated karma to get it.

On the other hand, to the liberals out there, realize that conservatives are also trying to do what they believe is fair: they see wealth as the just reward the rich get for their incredible contributions to society. The rich improve not only their own lives, but also those of others, as they make their wealth. Consider Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPhone. All of you who have an iPhone, you payed, say, $600 for it. But how much is it worth to you? How much value, how much enjoyment, how much productivity, do you get out of that iPhone? Probably a lot more than $600. Now multiply that over all the people who have ever bought an iPhone, and Steve Jobs has created a lot of value to people and society; maybe even enough to say he deserved his wealth. When someone has done that much to improve people’s lives, what kind of reward is it to take away his money, against his will, and use it to help people who, while perhaps not lazy bums, certainly have not done as much to help society as Steve Jobs has. Again, if he chooses to give his money to them, fine, it’s his to do with what he wants. But to take it from him by force, for whatever purpose, is a grave injustice, and to make a habit of doing so has the potential to undermine the incentive structure that makes cooperation, and society itself, possible at all. Imagine you’re working on a school project, and you did about half the work while each of your groupmates only did a quarter. And even though you each get an individual grade on the project, you get a B- instead of an A because of their poor-quality work, while they each get a C- instead of a D- because of your high-quality work. It doesn’t seem fair that your effort doesn’t get rewarded, and they get a break for riding your coattails. Right? That visceral sense of unfairness is what conservatives feel when they think about taxing the rich to feed the poor.

And, of course, in most cases both kinds of fairness come into play. The rich mostly got where they are by some combination of good luck and effort, and the poor mostly got to where they are by some combination of bad luck and lack of effort. So both sides offer valuable insights: we should be wary about not rewarding people for their efforts, and about rewarding people for nothing, because messing with the incentive structures would make cooperation impossible, which would make everyone worse off. But, we should also correct for when our current incentive system causes people harm through no fault of their own.

Of course, there are many more conceptions of fairness than just these two, and the arguments I’ve presented here are far from representative of the myriad positions and justifications of people on the left and on the right. So, next time you get into a debate with someone on this issue, listen to their arguments, and try to let them convince you of the merits of their position. Even if you don’t end up entirely agreeing, there’s probably a reason, and maybe even a good one, for why they think what they do.


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