The stories we tell and the truths we hide: fairness, mobility, and inequality

Nature just published an article by Paul Bloom, Christina Starmans, and Mark Sheshkin.

Their argument: people care more about fairness than inequality, and policy makers and pundits too often ignore the difference between these two concepts.

In their own words:

Our own argument against a focus on inequality is a psychological one… people don’t care about reducing inequality per se. Rather, people have an aversion toward unfairness, and under certain special circumstances this leads them to reject unequal distributions. In other conditions, including those involving real-world distributions of wealth, it leads them to favour unequal distributions. In the current economic environment in the United States and other wealthy nations, concerns about fairness happen to lead to a preference for reducing the current level of inequality. However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality. To understand these opposite drives, one needs to focus not on whether the system results in a relatively equal or unequal distribution of wealth, but whether it is viewed as fair.

The authors might be right that humans care more about fairness than inequality, but I think people’s reasons for caring about fairness are wrong.

Here’s my current thinking on fairness – the related concept of mobility – and inequality:

Fairness is a fantasy.

I don’t believe that fairness is achievable. We don’t choose our genes, our environment, and we might not even have free will – so how is anything really fair?

Obama’s “you didn’t build this” line remains one of the most philosophically honest statements that a president has uttered since I’ve been following politics.

And an even more honest statement would have been: “you didn’t build you.”

I suppose you could redefine a “fair” society as one where people are able to live out the full potential of their genes and environment, but this hardly captures the totality of what people think about when they say they desire fairness.

In a perfectly fair world there would be little mobility. 

People often use mobility as a measure of fairness. The more rags to riches stories there are, the fairer a society must be. I think this is backwards. In a perfectly fair society, there would little mobility, as genes and environment would drive so much of outcomes. We’d be stagnantly sorted save for random shocks or to the extent that technological change affected what genes and environments were valuable.

The desirability of mobility is predicated on the idea that people justly move up or down a society’s rungs based on their own volition – and this is a fantasy.


People should care about inequality!

I’m open to the idea that people don’t care about inequality as much as liberal pundits think they do. But I think people are foolish not to care! When the inputs (genes and environment) are randomly sprinkled across humanity, inequality of outcomes should be a concern for us all, because, in the truest sense of the word, these outcomes are unfair.

Our are fantasies of use?

Perhaps. People desiring fairness as an outcome – and using mobility as a proxy for fairness – may help avoid things like free loading, distrust, and government tyranny. These myths might also increase hard work and entrepreneurship. I grant that these myths have survived many rounds of social evolution, and in this sense should warrant some respect.

But believing these myths comes at a great cost in that we falsely blame people for their bad outcomes and tolerate insanely brutal amounts of inequality to maintain the artifice.

It might just be better to live in a world where we say: “we know the world is terribly unfair and it’s no one’s fault so we are willing to push marginal tax rates and transfers as high as possible until we near the part of the curve where disincentives to work are  greatly hampering economic growth and screwing us all.”

Or perhaps society would function poorly in the face of us all admitting this reality.

I don’t really know.

Either way, our myths of fairness and mobility blind us to the reality the world is unjustly unequal.

3 thoughts on “The stories we tell and the truths we hide: fairness, mobility, and inequality

  1. Cozzi, John

    I thought this was interesting. I tend to side with the fairness argument more than you do but that may just be personal reaction and I’m projecting it. However, a few things have never been clear to me when people argue against inequality (meaning they want [more] equality):

    – Is the push for equality measured by inputs (a level playing field) or outcomes (everyone gets the same thing)? – Why does inequality seem to be solely measured by income? If everyone had the same income would be equal or would there still be further frustration around unequal health, happiness, status, etc outcomes? – Once everyone is made equal how would be think about different outcomes from there when different people have different motivations to change their status?

    These are a few obvious questions but I have found them addressed in any comprehensive conversations around this topic. I’d love to discuss or I’d appreciate direction to someone who has written on this topic.

    Thanks, John

    John F. Cozzi AEA Investors LP 666 Fifth Avenue, 36th Floor New York, New York 10103 (T) 212-702-0504 (M) 908-347-1427

  2. Matt Niksch

    Hi Neerav,

    If I read your discussion above correctly, I think you’re missing the point a little because you seem to be comparing fairness and inequality from the perspective of policy and the data that might back it up. I think for most people, impressions of fairness are personal and anecdotal, while the very concept of inequality requires data and math. Our social brains are built for the former and not the latter. (People like you and me have, to a certain extent, trained our social intuitions to be more data based and less biased which, ironically, I think makes blindness in judgements like this more likely.)
    If I bring this back to what I spend a lot of time talking about, I agree with the article. When I talk to people (wealthy, poor, in between) about educational outcomes by income tier, they don’t begrudge the fact that rich kids do well. What makes people universally indignant is the fact that smart kids (smart enough to go to college) from poor families still have a less than 1 in 4 shot at getting a bachelor’s degree. That’s data, but constructed in such a way that people can usually see the tragic, deserving, protagonist in their minds.
    Another way to say it is to say when we think about fairness, we rarely think about populations. We worry about whether a bargain was broken. (If the bargain was broken in a way we feel even remotely responsible, we feel personally culpable.) If the American Dream is that a hard worker can get ahead and lead a decent life, most Americans will be indignant when they hear of a clear case where that didn’t happen. If we seek to influence policy to attenuate these issues, we should learn to tell stories that make the connection personal and individual.

  3. nkingsl

    Hey Matt – great to hear from you. I agree with you from a sociological perspective, as well as how people experience the problem. I’m just not sure this is a philosophically sound way to view the world! But ultimately you’re right that fairness is what drives people’s views of society.


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