Sunday, November 16, 2008

Two Very Dangerous Words: "Fair" and "Fairness"

In "The Armchair Economist," economist Steven E. Landsburg posed the following:

"Suppose that Jack and Jill draw equal amounts of water from a community well. Jack's income is $10,000, of which he is taxed 10%, or $1,000, to support the well. Jill's income is $100,000, of which she is taxed 5%, or $5,000, to support the well. In which direction is the policy unfair?"

An honest person will admit that this question has no indisputably right answer. Prof. Landsburg then asked "If I can't tell what's fair in a world of two people and one well, how can I tell what's fair in a country with 250 million people and tens of thousands of government services?"

HT: Don Boudreaux

The words "fair" and "fairness" are two of the most dangerous words in the English language, for the following reasons:

1. People using those words (e.g. "fair trade," "fair wages") almost always follow with some proposal for government intervention, government regulation, or government force of some kind to correct some perceived "unfairness" and impose their notion of "fairness."

And to paraphrase Thomas Sowell:

2. In most cases, it is hopeless to try to have a rational discussion with those who use the words "fair" and "fairness."

3. "Fair" and "fairness" are two words that can mean virtually anything to anybody.

4. "Fair" and "fairness" are two of the most emotionally powerful words, but at the same time are words that are undefined (see #3).

22 Comments:

At 11/16/2008 5:06 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

All words are inherently dangerous; that’s why the press is the first place dictators quash when they overthrow a government. The person in power gets to define the term and the connotation. Your blog = bailout. My blog = loan. Pretty simple. Pretty powerful. Did you notice the financial institutions’ “bailout” is now called TARP? Much more politically palatable that way: Isn’t it?

 
At 11/16/2008 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair and fairness are emotional word and feeling are not facts.

The bailout or loan comparison is also inaccurate as the money will simply vanish into the black-hole of the insolvent banking system. It will not bailout these behemoths, save jobs and the money will never be repaid.

 
At 11/16/2008 8:01 PM, Anonymous Machiavelli999 said...

It is also useless to have rational conversations with people who when all else fail fall back on ideology instead of discussing facts and results.

And by that I mean both communists and free market absolutists.

 
At 11/16/2008 9:57 PM, Anonymous thomas blair said...

Machiavelli999,

Although I'm sure you'll say you didn't imply that we do have a free market, I need to point out that the United States does not have a free market. Regulations and taxes abound.

 
At 11/16/2008 10:03 PM, Anonymous Machiavelli999 said...

That's my whole point thomas blair.

We have an organization called the Federal Reserve. It is a central bank run by the government. And yet, even I accept the need for its existence. As do both parties. So, the argument between the Republicans and Democrats isn't really about free market capitalism vs socialism. Its two different types of socialism.

Now, if you want to argue against the existence of the Federal Reserve, that's a whole other argument. But a lot of so called "free market capitalists" dismiss any government regulation purely based on their ideology of no government interference, while government interference is going on all around them.

The arguments we should be having should be based on facts not ideologies.

 
At 11/16/2008 10:30 PM, Anonymous Machiavelli999 said...

To make my last comment a little bit more coherent, I would like to summarize by just saying that the argument we should be having is not whether or not government should interfere in the economy (it always has and it always will and most serious economists agree that an establishment of a lender of last resort was necessary and could only be done by the government), but how and to what extent it should.

 
At 11/16/2008 10:59 PM, Anonymous qt said...

There are many words that make rational discussion virtually impossible particularly when morality is introduced to a subject. The difficulty seems to occur when we use labels to characterize the subject under discussion rather than the lack of a common definition.

There are many examples "greed", "bailout", "multi-national", "illegal alien", even "free-market capitalist".

Why "free-market capitalist" rather than "libertarian" or "classical economist"? Our words characterize our attitude toward the subject.

Macchiavelli,

Your description of "free-market capitalists" as those who don't believe in any form of government is a wonderful example of a straw man argument.

 
At 11/16/2008 11:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You reminded George Owell's animal farm.


However, I have my definition and most people, in practice, will agree with me.

My definition of fair and fairness:

That when I have advantages over others is fair. And this incidence is called fairness.

mL

 
At 11/16/2008 11:53 PM, Anonymous Machiavelli999 said...

qt,

Perhaps. But I have found that most "free market capitalists" and "libertarians" when cornered, just fall back on the typical argument of:

"What right does government have to do this?"

Well, what right does the government have to do anything at all??

 
At 11/17/2008 5:59 AM, Blogger 1 said...

"Jack's income is $10,000, of which he is taxed 10%, or $1,000, to support the well. Jill's income is $100,000, of which she is taxed 5%, or $5,000, to support the well. In which direction is the policy unfair?"

An honest person will admit that this question has no indisputably right answer
"...

Absolute BS!...

Obviously the supposed 'honest' person is less than honest or graduated from one of this nation's oh so fine government funded madrassas...

There is NO reason that Jill should pay one more penny in tax than Jack if being, "fair" (ha! ha!) was what is was really all about...

 
At 11/17/2008 6:10 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Since this is predominantly an economics’ blog, I think the postings tend to ignore the other important aspects that hard-decision makers use: political and social views. We assume a rational model where one does not exist. Why do we so readily agree that the word “fair” cannot be defined, yet we want to force rationality into an irrational world? Facts don’t always win; sometimes people do.

 
At 11/17/2008 6:13 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

1,

Jill should just buy the well and charge Jack whatever she wants. That will teach 'em.

 
At 11/17/2008 6:43 AM, Blogger 1 said...

"Facts don’t always win; sometimes people do"...

Hmmm, isn't that what might be labled as, 'progressive' walt g?

"Jill should just buy the well and charge Jack whatever she wants"...

Yes walt g, it'll teach Jack to get off of his @$$ and dig his own well if he doesn't want to pay the going rate that Jill will charge...

BTW walt g, how's the latest pinko parasite's latest blatherings being received in your industry?

 
At 11/17/2008 8:06 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Progressive? I’m an enigma myself. I’ve spent most of my life defying labels. Most people don’t fit in the box that others might think that they would.

As far as the loan/bailout Obama situation? We're in a wait-and-see mode. I can understand all the controversy. I'm not so sure I would look at things the same way from the outside as I do from the inside :-)

 
At 11/17/2008 8:07 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

1,

Jill owns all the shovels, too.

 
At 11/17/2008 8:20 AM, Blogger 1 said...

"As far as the loan/bailout Obama situation? We're in a wait-and-see mode"...

Hmmm, I can well imagine...

The one rationale that I think the automakers and their employees have on their side when it comes to the bailout/loans is the post 9-11 conditions of the airline industry...

Federal government imposed costs to the airline industry were enormous... Personally I think the same can be said about the auto industry...

I'm guessing here walt g but if the government got out of the auto industry (i.e. CAFE standards, emissions quotas, inane safety equipment for vehicles) the so called, 'Big Three' could stand on their own even with the legacy costs of retired employees...

Ahhh but the Demwits & R.I.N.O. just won't quit with their asinine attempts at social engineering...

From the Heritage Foundation: In one of the first moves in the lame duck session, Senator Harry Reid (D–NV) is calling for a vote on an omnibus lands package that would create 10 new "heritage" areas and restrict millions of acres as federal wilderness land. As a result, the bill would eliminate major recreation and restrict new oil and gas leasing, logging, mining, and all other business activity in these areas. In total, 3 million acres would be withdrawn from energy leasing. The Congressional Budget Office places an $8 billion price tag on the omnibus lands bill: $7.1 billion in discretionary spending and over $915 million in mandatory spending...

"Jill owns all the shovels, too"....

Well walt g, it seems that Jill is a whole lot smarter than Jack then...

 
At 11/17/2008 8:30 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Yep, She has EVERYTHING Jack wants!

 
At 11/17/2008 10:34 AM, Anonymous qt said...

Macchiavelli,

Most libertarians I know understand that government has a legitimate role in society. ie. establishing property rights, maintaining rule of law, military defense, establishing a monetary currency, etc. The most eloquent of these was Milton Friedman who expands on this subject in Freedom and Capitalism.

There are very few libertarians even within the Republican Party.
Certainly within the U.S., you have originalists who believe that there should be a constitutional basis for government. Such views do not imply the elimination of all forms of government but support the very essence of U.S. democracy and rule of law, namely the constitution.

The phrase "small government" is not interchangeable with the word "anarchy".

You don't have to be a libertarian to spot when someone's position is being mischaracterized. Such fallacious argumentation has been around for several thousand years.

It is interesting that you make a claim without any shred of credible evidence to support your assertions other than your own "personal observations". The argument is so subjective and highly prejudicial, one can drive a bus through it.

Definitely not up to scratch.

 
At 11/17/2008 11:10 AM, Blogger Andy said...

Anytime somebody starts a sentence with "in fairness," or "to be fair," he has either just said or is just about to say something decidedly unfair, and usually pretty sarcastic.

In fairness, I do it all the time.

 
At 11/17/2008 11:12 AM, Anonymous warbaby said...

1 said, in re Jill's holding all the power in the well equation...

"Well, it seems that Jill is a lot smarter than Jack, then."

Unfortunately, that may be primarily because Jill was smart enough to choose the right parents, sez I.

 
At 11/17/2008 11:43 AM, Blogger 1 said...

"Unfortunately, that may be primarily because Jill was smart enough to choose the right parents, sez I"...

Oh yeah! I always love the Ted Kennedy example...

 
At 11/18/2008 4:37 PM, Blogger @sethstorm said...


"Suppose that Jack and Jill draw equal amounts of water from a community well. Jack's income is $10,000, of which he is taxed 10%, or $1,000, to support the well. Jill's income is $100,000, of which she is taxed 5%, or $5,000, to support the well. In which direction is the policy unfair?"

Swap it to a flat tax and ask the same question.

 

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