Fairness and Economics: Did We Miss Something?

Imagine that you’re playing a new simulation game. In this game, you get to create a new society. Here’s your chance to make the world the way you want it to be. Only, there’s a catch: you will also live in this society. You will be randomly assigned a role in the society. You could be a doctor, lawyer, business executive or janitor, or garbage collector. Given that you don’t know what role you’ll play in this new society, what rules would you create in this simulation for compensation for work?

Interesting question, isn’t it? It’s essentially the question ethicist John Rawls posed in his classic book A Theory of Justice. Posing a similar kind of simulation, Rawls suggested that the only logical choice one would have in creating a society in which a person doesn’t know what role she or he would play is to assure that each person is treated fairly and would have enough money to live on. Rawls called this an ethics of fairness.

Rawls contended that for society to be fair, decisions about how society worked couldn’t be left to a few people with power. When a few people have most of the power, they make decisions to benefit themselves. Fair decisions are made when lots of people are part of the decision. Everyone will want to make sure that the pie is divided equally rather than allow one person to get a really big slice of the pie.

Rawls’s perspective on ethics, society, and fairness sounds somewhat utopian. After all, we don’t live in a simulation. In the world that we live in, it’s the people with power who make the rules. While Americans are proud to live in a democracy based on a principle that each person has an equal voice in decisions about society based on having a vote, we know that in reality we have little impact on the decisions made by the government or by corporations. Today, many Americans struggle with the reality of what it means to live in our essentially unfair society. Feeling powerless, conservatives want to solve the problem with a libertarian solution to reduce the role of government and thereby increase personal freedom. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, believe that by increasing government regulation over business, greater personal freedom will result because the playing field will be made more even among all classes of people. I think both sides want the same thing: to have enough to live well in society. However, each side views the way to get there as opposite from the other.

Living in a free-market capitalist society, it would seem that less regulation should result in greater freedom for all. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Nobel prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, who was an economic advisor to President Ronald Regan, and who consulted with many governments around the world on creating market-based economies, wrote extensively on economics and freedom. Friedman understood free-market capitalism as the economic system that embodied the ideals of a free society in which each member experienced personal liberty. Among his positions, Friedman held that for a member of society to be free, he or she must be able to say either yes or no to each of society’s options. To make that practical, let’s say that someone who is unemployed is offered a job. For that person to be free, the person must be equally able to accept or reject the job offered.

Here’s where Friedman’s example of freedom falls apart today: without a basic guarantee to be able to survive in the world, feed one’s family, pay rent or mortgage, or basic medical care, a person isn’t free to say no to a job. In fact, a person may need to say yes to a job that doesn’t provide a sufficient wage and benefit package to live in society.

Friedman believed that companies need to demonstrate corporate social responsibility based on a fundamental ethical understanding that the good of a company is rooted in the good of society. Since Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom in 1962, the overwhelming evidence is that corporations are not driven by the desire to make decisions based on the good of a society but on maximizing profitability at the expense of society.

Friedman also noted that the society that has best implemented free market capitalism is Hong Kong, which has minimal regulation for engaging in business but also has generous government subsidies for housing and social welfare. Hong Kong, a bastion of free enterprise, understands that free enterprise works when human capital is sustained by having basic needs met.

What does all of this have to do with spirituality? The way in which society responds to the needs of others is a clear reflection of what is valued at heart in that society. Each great religious tradition challenged its adherents to create a world in which all people receive enough for survival. Caring for the least in society, restoring justice, living with compassion, acts of charity are all different forms of this same essential value.

Fairness in society is fundamentally based on our values. Fairness is rooted in the spirit and soul of each person and nurtured through spiritual practice. We commonly teach children to be fair to one other, to share their toys, and to give each playmate the same size of the pie. Yet, we have allowed society to become increasingly unfair by allowing the powerful to reap the rewards of society while a growing number of people live in poverty.

This past Sunday, many people in Christian churches heard a familiar story from Matthew’s gospel: a landowner hired workers throughout the day – early in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, and an hour before quitting time. At the end of the day, he paid them all the same. We hear the story and it makes no sense to us. If you work all day in the hot sun, don’t you deserve more than the person who just worked an hour? What we miss in the story is this: the landowner paid each what was commonly accepted as a minimum amount of money required to live on in that society. It didn’t matter how much they worked, they received the living wage. The point of the story is very simple – and often missed: each person deserves enough to survive in society. What could be simpler than that?

This reflection was inspired by the sermon delivered by Jon P. Gunnerman at Central Congregational UCC, Atlanta, on Sunday, September 18.

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to Fairness and Economics: Did We Miss Something?

  1. Dean Thomasson says:

    I am a Christian Business owner and I appreciate your thoughts. Ideally I would embrace them, however, I find that truth is: people don’t get equal results (pay) because they don’t put in equal effort.
    I do not pay people the same for doing less work, I pay people for performing.
    I believe Christ did not suggest that we be fair, He intends for us to be gracious and merciful which is in fact unfair. Praise God He has not been fair with me, I certainly do not deserve anything He has done for me.

  2. What could be simpler, is if we created Sustainable Technological Systems like Giant Vertical Farms, which were mechanized & continuously provided food to everyone in the city. No more need to slave for wealthy landowners over minimum wages. Please, look into the Venus Project & the Zeitgeist movement. They are both originations, based on the Voluntary Creation of an Access Abundant World through Global Sustainability.

  3. Lou says:

    I think your out of my area of expertise on this but I appreciate that you took time to comment.

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