Life Isn’t Fair; But Should It Be?

It’s one of the most commonly cited axioms in the English language (and I’m willing to bet the equivalent is quoted in most other languages, as well): ‘Life isn’t fair’.  A complete list of the examples of unfairness in life would fill an entire blog.  (Not a blog entry, or even a week’s worth of blog entries, but an entire blog run for years with the sole purpose of documenting the unfairness of life.)  From the fact that your quality of life is largely determined where you are born (as well as your race and gender at birth) to the fact that Death can reach out his icy hand and drag you into the great beyond at any time, life in its entirety is pretty unfair.  (Don’t get too depressed; this post’ll get more upbeat by the end.)

This is the point made by Investor Junkie in his well-titled post ‘Life Isn’t Fair.  Now Get Over It.‘  It’s a decent summation of ways in which life isn’t fair, as well as the suggested method of handling that unfairness: getting over it and moving on with your life.  He makes some very good points about how the world currently exists, and does so with a nice reference to Dr. Seuss.  (I do love me some Seuss).

Just look at those stuck up birds
Just look at those stuck up birds

But that brings up the inevitable question: should we try to make life fair?  After all, the desire for fairness is deeply ingrained in most of us from a young age.  From the time we go to elementary school, teachers, parents, and we ourselves try to make everything from games to tests fair to everyone.  Tests are administered simultaneously, cheating is prevented, and assuming the teacher is any good, ample opportunity exists to study and get further assistance, if needed.  Board games start with everyone having equal standing; nobody begins Monopoly with hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place and half the money in the game.  Even when you get your friends together to play kickball, you try to make the teams ‘even’; the captains take turns choosing team members so that not all the huge, athletic kids end up on one team against the nerds.

Already we’ve run into a problem, though; not everyone is created equal, in spite of what the Declaration of Independence states.  Some people are more intelligent, more athletic, or better at making money than others, simply by virtue of their genes and upbringing.  Attempting to make everyone equal in all aspects of life will mean going against the natural order of things, and most attempts have the tendency to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator (at it’s easier to make the strong (or otherwise gifted) hold back than it is to make the weak stronger).

That, in a nutshell,is the same argument that arises whenever issues of federal programs, taxes, and ‘fairness’ arise in the government.  On the Left, you have progressives and liberals who maintain that the government should take a greater hand in redistributing wealth for the benefit of society as a whole, with the communists on the far left arguing that everyone should have exactly the same amount of money and other possessions (colloquially, the same amount of ‘stuff’).  On the Right, you hear the conservatives arguing that high taxes and generous government handouts will discourage people from working, with the most extreme libertarians arguing that we’d be better off without government, period.

As is the case with most the intractable political debates, there’s truth to both arguments, at least, the less extreme arguments; this makes sense, as even the most die-hard partisans would hopefully come to an agreement if all the evidence was against them.  Not that this always happens…  Societies with a more equal distribution of money and other property tend to be healthier and happier, at all levels of society, which is a key to the Left’s argument.  On the other hand, high and rising taxes can (and unfortunately do) discourage labor, savings, and other industry, as the Right claims.

Finding a balance

How do we thread the needle, then, between creating an economically equal society that promotes a good society overall (with crippling high taxes) and a society that rewards those who take risks, build empires, and further spur the advance of mankind (while generating a greater gap between the haves and have-nots)?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know the answer.  From my perspective, the key seems to be establishing a floor (or safety net) to keep those who are earning little from falling into the depth of poverty, as well as a tax rate low enough to minimize disincentives to working but high enough to level the field a bit (to say nothing of providing for the needs of the government, for better or for worse).  That’s what we’re currently attempting to do, with the myriad of social programs in existence, although it creates the unfortunate side effect of causing those being helped to spend all their time being administered to rather than working on something that could better society.  A simpler plan, like Milton Friedman’s negative income tax plan, might be workable, although getting the needed number of politicians together to so radically change the tax system would be a monumental undertaking.

That said, I don’t believe the American system is either as unfair or as discouraging to economic growth as critics on both sides occasionally attempt to contend.  Taxes are far from punitive on most people, with a max marginal rate of roughly 40% (and as mentioned before, marginal rates are far from the actual rate of taxes paid)  as of this writing and most wage earners getting nowhere near that amount.  Similarly, there are already plenty of social programs designed to keep people from starving in the streets (not to say that people don’t still fall through the cracks).  Is it perfect, no; but we’ve still done a decent job of protecting the worst off while allowing the best to profit from their skills.  (See, I told you I would end on a high note.)

Do you think society should work to be more fair, even at the cost of demotivating the best economic performers?  Is there a way to both motivate the capable and keep society fair?  Does thinking about this make you start wondering about your beliefs, or is it just me?

15 Responses to Life Isn’t Fair; But Should It Be?

  1. I think when you try to have fairness in the system, you take away all individuality a person has. In that world we have a lot of mediocrity and depression.

    Some of the previous socialist countries have proven that the fairness model doesn’t work so well. That’s why now some form of capitalism exists in countries like China and Russia.

    Another thing to keep in mind is there is always somebody that will take advantage of a floor if you give it to them. At a younger age, I know of entire families that were raised on welfare. Her mantra was ” my grandmother and mother was raised on welfare, and so will I”.

    Society isn’t fair, but there are those who will cheat if given the opportunity.
    .-= Money Reasons´s last blog ..What I Have Learned To Date From Blogging! =-.

  2. @Money Reasons: You do raise a very good point, one I attempted to discuss in the article: there’s a trade off between fairness and motivation. If society provides few tangible incentives to be the best, most people aren’t going to make the effort. Also as mentioned, most socialist/communist countries seem to becoming increasing capitalist in nature, anyway. (Although, the cynic would argue that the USSR wasn’t a ‘true’ communist society, just as the US never was a ‘pure’ capitalist society, so just judging on their fates is no way to determine which method is better).

    As for people taking advantage of a floor if possible, this is very true. Of course, the reasons for this are many and varied; some people are simply lazy and don’t want to work, some people (like the woman that you mentioned) simply weren’t taught to improve themselves or their lot in life, and some people have physical, mental, or emotional circumstances that prevent them from doing anything else. Figuring out the differences and deciding how to deal with those differences is one of the many tough tasks facing us as a society.

    As for cheating, you’ll have that, not only among the poor recipients of welfare, but also among the middle class and well off. That in and of itself shouldn’t be enough to cause us not to provide charity to those who need it.

    @FS: I sent IJ a message, and hope he decides to respond; one of the primary reasons for these ‘Playful Dance’ posts is to get a conversation going. I don’t think we should just give up completely on trying to make society more fair; if nothing else, having conversations like this helps us to determine our morals and priorities. As for the Alexa improvement, thank you very much; before too long, I’ll be caught up to you :)

  3. The reason for my original post is capitalism and political policies have an interesting relation. Something I never really thought about or aware of until a few years ago.

    I see some issue regarding what you are describing fairness and some of what you are discussing are really rules. Which are really two different things. For me at least games, just as in life have rules. These rules must be followed or you’ll suffer legal or social ramifications. That’s not to say these rules are fair or not, they are just rules put into place by society to create order. Though some rules are created to try to equal the playing field.

    Also it’s funny that you mention school. School have their own rules in their own world. I don’t think reflect much of what is seen in the real world of business and in life (isn’t that the primary purpose of education to assimilate into society?). The example I give in my blog entry, every child now “wins” an award? Does that rule have any basis in reality? While I think it’s important to encourage a child to do better, is this the best method? It basically stating there is no failure? If you do a mediocre job you’ll still win!

    I’ll give an example that I see on American Idol every season. How many of the people waiting in line are just so bad it’s painfully obvious? It’s been said Simon is crewel. I like him a lot because he’s honest. Honest that he says to some of the contestants will NEVER be good singers. You hear of teachers and parents (interesting though most cases you don’t hear about friends) told the contestant they were great singers.

    In my case, I know I’ll never be great at sports. It’s just not me and makes me who I am. Why should I have a law created so I can play in professional sports so it’s now fair for me?? I can assume that some of the athletes are not great in computers and finance, like I am. So should a law exist to make it fair for them?

    At least for me, when you start applying “fairness” it your own “handicaps” you realize how silly these laws could become. If you do believe in fairness at what point do you stop?

    At what point does making it fair for one group that was “wronged” makes it unfair to original group?

    It’s obvious I tend to lean toward Libertarian. From my own life experiences, more government does not help society as a whole. I’m obviously not for anarchy. Government does play a very important role on society. At least from what I see, free market (not crony capitalism) is at best way to ensure fairness.

    This is not to say, I don’t think a safety net should not exist. It should most definitely exist for someone down in their luck to bounce back. The issue becomes at what point have something that was supposed to be a safety net, turns into a dependency? It’s been said you want more of something you subsidize it, you want less you tax it.

    Let me give you an example in my life. My wife last year ordered some formula on Ebay since it was cheaper than the store. In one of the packages she saw the receipt. It was originally paid for by food stamps! The package reaked of smoke and assume the person bought smokes instead of baby formula. I’m not even sure the person had a baby, but that’s a whole other issue. The point is the person took the “free” money and used it for other things.

    The “Declaration of Independence” and the interpretation of “All men created equal” is of constant debate. Some take it to mean created in the eyes of god, we are born out equal. Others take it to mean, we should have equal opportunity. As you know it’s a big difference. The declaration also talks much about the individual instead of the collective state. I believe they meant it more towards born equal.

    It’s funny to note we are moving more towards socialism, while socialist countries are moving more towards capitalism. It could be said we really haven’t been a true capitalistic country for over 100 years.
    .-= Investor Junkie´s last blog ..Life Isn’t Fair. Now Get Over It. =-.

  4. To take a leaf out of Bill Clinton’s book of logic (but this time legitimately), I think the crucial thing in this discussion is the definition of “fair”. What is fair to one person is unfair to another. That is why we are lucky to live in a democracy where these different concepts of fairness have a better chance to be balanced out.

    That is not to say that I would agree with the Financial Samurai when he says, “Life isn’t fair, it NEVER will be, so we might as well not bother.” If I truly thought something was unfair, why would I ever want to be so jaded that I would just throw up my arms and resign myself to accepting the status quo? Well, I would only accept the status quo if I was a big time beneficiary of the current system of “fairness”….

  5. @IJ: Wow, impressive response. I’ll have to try to address your comments as well as I can without turning this into a whole new post (not that that would be a horrible idea…)

    I brought up the idea of rules and childhood games because that’s where most of us get our sense of what’s fair and what’s not. You spend most of your childhood playing games where everyone starts with the same resources at the same place on the board, all working toward the same goal. I think that’s part of the appeal of communism, at least for young people (high school-college students in particular): it sounds so reasonable and so fair to treat everyone equally. At least, until you start to think about how little motivation it would actually leave for most people. (As for the increasing tendency toward ‘every child wins a trophy, nobody ever fails, “We can’t criticism the little bastards because it will hurt their feelings”,’ that just plain needs to stop.)

    As for American Idol, I’m not sure that’s the best inspiration for our society; it’s basically, ‘the winner of a popularity contest gets fame and fortune’. You raise a good point, though, that not everyone has the same talents and skills, and trying to structure our society as if they do isn’t the best approach.

    As for the law and fairness, it is a rather tricky issue to try to find the balance. Laws to prevent racial discrimination often lead to quotas, either explicit or implicit, as companies and government agencies try to prove they aren’t biased.

    It’s a un-winnable situation, really. If you keep the policy in place, there’s always going to be some white males (or any other group that falls into the ‘majority’) who feels that the policies are reverse discrimination, promoting less qualified minorities on the basis of skin tone or other non-work related traits. On the other hand, if you get rid of these policies, there’s the risk that we could have biased managers only employing people who look like them. It’s one of those areas where, hopefully, we’ll advance enough as a society that it won’t matter in the future, but aren’t nearly there yet.

    As for the safety net, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think it should exist, in one form or another. The real question is what form should it take? Should it be available to everyone, or should there be limits on who can receive it? Should it be tied to work (‘workfare’) as some states are proposing, or available to anyone down on their luck? How long should it last, how much should be provided, who should pay; all these questions (and more) come to mind when trying to design a welfare system.

    As for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they are rather ambiguously worded. My assumption is they indicate that all (white) men have equal rights under the law, if by no means equal backgrounds or equal chances to succeed.

    As for the ‘Cuban Idol’ joke, that’s one possibility. I’d say we could try ‘China Idol’, but even the Chinese seem to be headed towards a capitalistic society pretty quickly…

    @ctreit: Very true; part of the problem with this type of discussion is that ‘fairness’ is such a nebulous term (a ‘weasel word’, if you want to be less generous) that it could mean almost anything. As Investor Junkie just noted, there’s so many different versions of ‘fair’ that what’s fair to me might seem horribly unfair to you, or vice versa. As you said, good thing we have mechanisms in place to talk these sorts of differences out. And yes, I think Financial Samurai was being a bit defeatist when he proposed that we just never bother; that’s almost never a good attitude to take (unless, as you said, you were a major winner under the current system; then you could take the attitude of ‘if nothing changes, I win; if things do change, I should still come out on top’ and do nothing).

  6. “Attempting to make everyone equal in all aspects of life will mean going against the natural order of things, and most attempts have the tendency to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator”
    Gosh I love that line.

  7. Once again the whole Left v. Right debate is framed based on Left wants more government and right wants less. People forget there are other options.

    There is the Libertarian Left, which wants to abolish government and capitalism(by also abolishing any kind of hierarchy and having all work owned by the workers).

    In that system it would be impossible to own anything (much less welfare handouts) without working. Sitting on mommy and daddys money or sitting on your ass and taking “business trips” on company money to resorts and golf fields while letting secretaries figure out all the management work for you would not be an option either. Libertarian Socialism is the ONLY system that guarantees that to make money you must work and by work you must materially provide a good or service through your own labor not by moving around money(like bankers) or renting out “property” you own only because its been passed down through your family that you never bother to even visit. People’s actual wealth would be reflective of their actual labor.

    Would this mean everything would be fair? Of course not. Random shit happens. But this would be by far fairer than the pro-government left or anything on the right.

  8. @Liberty&Equality: I did simplify the whole ‘Left vs. Right’ thing a bit in some of my comments, although the general view that the right wants less government involvement in the economy and the left wants more (the exact opposite of their views on government involvement in social issues). You do raise an interesting point, that there are far from only two valid political viewpoints, which is sometimes ignored in the course of most media coverage. Socialism, Libertarian, Centrist, to say nothing of the many more nuanced positions that don’t fall into easy classification; all tend to get overwhelmed and everyone gets stuffed into left or right.

    As for the Libertarian Left (or Libertarian Socialism, as you referred to both), it sounds like an interesting approach. I’ve heard similar ideas in various fiction; one sci-fi story I read had ‘whirs’ or ‘work hours’ as the basic unit of currency. It doesn’t seem perfect, though. Who’s enforcing laws and contracts if there’s no government? What sort of social organization will we have if there’s no hierarchy? What about retirement if there’s a direct link between labor and wealth? (To say nothing of what happens during a transition to that sort of system; does someone who worked for forty years, perhaps in banking or other ‘moving money around’ professions, find themselves without a cent going into retirement.) If I got decent answers to those questions, maybe my view would change, but right now, I’m rather disinclined.

  9. Now im not american, so im not as informed about your political parties and thier policies, sso i wont even attempt to touch that hehhe. But as for ‘fairness’ i think i have the opposite veiw as far as you were talking about rules.

    rules level the playing field moraly, or at least attempt to. when these rules are flaunted the playing field is skewed, and stops being ‘fair’ the rules provide the opportunity for everyone to excel, for society to actualy progress instead of devolving into roving packs of warring bandits.
    the primary reason we have “civilisation” in the first place is because we have accepted a set of rules to be part of a community, we recieve protection from outside threats and from each other and reciev certain services. when individuals begin flaunting these rules believing they are the exception, it is no longer fair, they are receiving the benefits of these rules, without its hindrances. can we agree the majority of people pay taxes? what about those who do not? they are still recieving its benefits, roads, schools, hospitals, military protection, police forces,ironicaly ‘the justice system’
    the rules do however have a contingency for balance but even thids is hit and miss in its application, punishment according to law, punishment is intented to level the playing field again, and serveas an examplecor other seeking to manipulate the system purely for advantage.

    simplified
    agreed to rules, follows rules for better or worse ‘fair’
    only follows rules when its as convenient to do so, does not when its easier to ignore them, still recieves benefits ‘unfair’

    is it fair to be struck by a drink driver? no it is not, the choices of another to break the rules have impacted somebody who was following the rules.
    this situation can however be made fair oncce more, balancing the scales, punishment of the offender, and reparations to the victim. the original event is still unfair, but the situation has been rebalanced, and made fair once more.

    well thats what i think any way.
    sorry for the numerous spelling mistakes but i have an eye condition and black text on a white glaring backgrounds frustrating to read hehe.

  10. Life definitely should be fair, i mean, numerous people live in poverty and terribleness, i mean, only fucking rich people and celebrities have it fair because they bring in millions of dollars annually, i mean, it’s unfair that ordinary folks can’t get into acting, right, i mean, there’s so many workaday people that love acting and yet nothing happens, they never make it, i mean, look, the fact is generally speaking, you want to have a great life, right, well, turns out you simply need to know people and have connections otherwise you’re life will just be boring, pathetic, and average, life is totally unfair because for many people who live in poverty like me, well, i’m not exactly poor, however, i live with lousy parents that give us very little money and truthfully i just hate my life because i wasn’t born in a rich family, you know what i mean, that’s why life is so unfair because everything that happens is uncontrollable, i mean, i wish i would have been born into a aristocratic family, right, however, it didn’t happen, i came from a rotten, rather impoverished, and uneducated family full of stupid italians relatives, i mean, i didn’t chose it, you know what i mean, god just put me there along with my sister and on top of that i go to a totally unbearably horrendous corrupt school with lame teachers that occasionally don’t even teach, that’s why public schools are godawful because nobody cares, you know what i mean, it’s like the place for unfortunate, relatively poor, lower class to middle class range, regular people that just won’t ever become anything more than regular people with perhaps an excellent job, right, but it’s extremely rare that you will see people coming out of public schools that will eventually become filthy rich, you know what i mean, it’s things like that make the world such a cruel, terrible, unfair place to live, i mean, on top of that, people can openly express their pointless opinion on this topic but you know what no matter what i say and no matter what i do my life remains the same, every fucking day, there’s nothing i could do to remove the pain and the moneylessness, i mean, life doesn’t change, i mean, i wish it would, time is the only factor that will transform your life, days won’t transform you’re life, you need to be inordinately patient and in the fullness of time, like years, i mean, things will get significantly better and life will be terrific, but right now it’s simply boring and saddening, i mean, the only real solution would be to give everyone jobs but unfortunately the employment rate is so fucking low that people are just living miserably like me for example, i mean, i wish i could have a job right now, however, it doesn’t matter what i think or what i say and that goes for everyone, you know what i mean, it actually has to happen and then you could talk because you need facts otherwise your just talking pointlessly, you can’t just talk, you know what i mean, you have to talk with purpose, let me tell you something else, the theme in life is about finding purpose and making mountains of money, okay, because at the end of day, money brings happiness, i know there’s that untrue ridiculously stupid saying that money is the root of all evil, well, you know what, i think that’s baloney, i mean, money is root of all happiness if you ask me, right, i mean, you could buy stuff like a house, a car, you could go on vacation, right, and see the world and basically explore everything there is to see, the world is a wonderful place and it’s our home, you know what i mean, however, you need lots of money to enjoy it, now, who cares about getting married and having kids, right, it’s a waste of money when you could be spending it on yourself indulging in the wonders of life arrogantly, i mean, it’s the only way, you know what i mean, you have to arrogants especially nowadays because only perceptive people have a life, life may suck but at least we have a chance to make our life different if we chose to, i mean, i’m going to high school right now and it doesn’t matter what i say because it doesn’t make me any fucking money, you know what i mean, you have to have a job, the government doesn’t give a shit about anybody, we have classes, the poor, the working class, the middle class, and upperclass which would essentially be all the rich scumbags, only the rich have the life, i mean, they could enjoy life and every passing day is terrific unlike the rest of us, everyday is have lots of fun and they just have a good time, the fact of the matter is nobody cares, you know what i mean, nobody gives a shit about what other people think and you know what that’s the real problem because we just live our own lives and it’s all competition to see whose better, let me just tell you this, all right, to make a long story short, the theme in life is to develop your character, take a path in life, and ultimately make your own legacy, everyone has a mind and everyone has an opinion, you know what i mean, as long as you have alive, you’re living right now, just go for it, life is like a stage, anything can happen, you know what i mean, i know life is full of uncertainty but we have to do whatever it takes to make it enhanced, that’s why i go to school because someday in the future my life will be exactly the way i picture it to be, absolutely perfect, perfection should be the aim and truthfully that’s what people have to do , you know what i mean, you have to really know what you want because it’s achievable even if you want to become a billioanaire, you know what i mean, the sky’s the limit and let me tell you something else we only have a certain amount of time to live on this planet, make every second count and make it truly meaningful, good luck to all, life is hard, it’s really tough but come to think of it we make it hard because we have wars, hunger, poverty, politics, you know what i mean, it’s because cilivalization just wants to make our way of living complicated, i mean, look at the cavemen, right, it was so uncomplicated but then we invented a rocket and cars and cellphones and computers, evolution happened, you know what i’m saying, it doesn’t have to be difficult but i guess we just can’t help it, i can’t control, humanity has the power to truly control where we’re heading as a whole, you know what i mean, life is unfair but it could be terrific, you know what i mean, we just have to see with from a different angle and then perhaps we will have an epiphany that life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re going to get, it could be good or it could be bad, but there will almost always be surprises down the old bumpy road of life

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