53% & Life is Not Fair

As I noted in my previous post, Erick Erickson recently started a movement in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The occupiers have as a slogan that they are the 99%. To counter this, Erickson hit on the idea of the 53%. This is the percentage of Americans who pay the federal income tax. His message is that complaints should cease, people should not blaming Wall Street, and people should pay their taxes.

During an interview on CNN Erickson responded to the criticisms of the Occupiers by asserting that life is not fair. He also made this point in his post:

Well, these people apparently forgot that life is not fair and are demanding the government intervene to legislate that life suddenly become fair. They are claiming to be the “99%” against the evil 1% of rich people who work on Wall Street. They are posting pictures to a website holding up their sob stories. Some are terribly tragic, but most? Boo-freakin’-hoo. Life is not, never has been, and never will be fair.

While Erickson does not actually present a developed argument, he seems to be contending that the Occupiers are in error regarding their protest and their desire to change the economic and political system. They are in error, as he seems to see it, because they supposedly want to make things fair and this will never occur. I am not sure if he means that unfairness is a matter of necessity in the sense that fairness is a logical or practical impossibility. However, it seems to suffice to take his claim at face value, namely that life will never be fair.

Interestingly, his response to this is rather like that of the Stoics and reminds me of what James Stockdale wrote about the story of Job: life is not fair and this is something we simply must deal with.

As a runner and martial artist, I have long found Stoicism appealing. However, there is the question about whether or not Erickson is right.

To steal a bit from Thomas Hobbes, life can be divided up into two main domains: the natural world and the artificial world. The natural world consists of all the natural thinks, such as streams, rocks, planets, animals, humans and so on. The artificial world is the domain of what we humans create and includes our social and political structures, including the economy.

The natural world is clearly not fair in the sense that natural processes do not consistently bring about what people (and animals) actually deserve. The just and unjust are killed in earthquakes, the wise and the fools perish of cancer, the good drown as readily as the bad, the kind are consumed in fire as swiftly as the cruel. As I say to my students, stuff just happens and deserving has nothing to do with it (to steal a bit from Unforgiven). As far as the evidence indicates, justice and fairness are lacking in the purely natural world.

This fact does, of course, cause some thinkers to raise the problem of evil in regards to God. After all, if there is supposed to be an omniscient, omnipotent and good God, then we would expect there be to justice in the natural world. It need not be a perfect world (as Leibniz argued), but such a being should surely be up to providing a fair world. There are, of course, various replies to this problem of evil-but none of them really seem to adequately solve the problem. One stock reply is that God balances the books in the afterlife, which hardly explains why He does not get the book keeping done properly here. The most reasonable inferences from the evidence are that either God does not exist or God is lacking perfection in power, knowledge or goodness.

In regards to the natural world, I agree with Erickson-life in the natural world is clearly not fair and this will almost certainly never change. It would be the height of foolishness to protest against this. Rather, wisdom lies in trying to mitigate the situation through preparations, technology, and good decision making.

However, as noted above, we are not merely creatures of the natural world who must live in a world not of our making. We are also the creators of the artificial world-that of society, politics, economics and so on. While this domain is obviously shaped by the natural world, it is a human construct and it is within our collective power. As such, whether our institutions are fair or not seems to be a matter of choice. Since we create and sustain them, it would seem to follow that we can change unfair aspects to be more fair. To think that our creations are beyond our control and that we simply have to live under their unchanging ways is to fall victim to the fallacy of reification.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine that I ran my classes in a way comparable to our economic system. For example, while students could work hard to get good grades, the grades also could be bought or acquired in other ways (like family influence or via connections). Also, the students would have access to the class material and my time on a non-equal basis (well off and well connected students would have the most, while the poor students would have far, far less). Imagine that some students complained that it was unfair. If I replied “life is not fair”, that would be absurd. After all, the class is under my control-I could just as easily make the class fair in the sense that the grade each student receives is  primarily dependent on their effort and ability. The same could be done with our economic system. After all, it was not forged by the hand of God and dropped from the sky. Nor is it ruled by unbreakable laws of nature. True, people do like to talk as if the economic system is an entity in its own right that follows immutable laws-but this is no more true of our economic system than it is true of my classes. The rules are ours to change, be they fair or unfair. As such, to say that life is not fair is merely an expression of a problem rather than a refutation of criticism of unfairness. Naturally, it could be argued that it is right to be unfair, but that seems to be absurd.

To forestall an obvious mistaken  reply, unfairness and inequality are different things: it can be completely fair to have an unequal distribution of goods. To go back to the class analogy, it can obviously be just and fair for students to have various grades-provided that the grades are based on merit. In fact, it would be unfair for students to get the same grades regardless of effort and accomplishments. To use another obvious analogy, a race can also be fair and yet end with an unequal distribution of awards. After all, not everyone can be first-just the best runner.  People often “confuse” calls for fairness with calls for equal distribution (often as an intentional part of a straw man attack) but they are not the same thing at all.

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42 Comments.

  1. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    There is something very special about someone who from the standpoint of a job with a good salary looks at the unemployed and those without health insurance and mocks them with the saying, “life isn’t fair”.

    As you say above, it is obvious that the fact that life is not fair has nothing to do with whether society should be fair.

    However, for me the real question is what kind of person would say that in a jeering tone (boo-freaking hoo). After all, life has its ups and downs and any one of us could end up homeless or persecuted by a dictator or with a horrible illness that our insurance conveniently does not cover or find that all of his or her savings are in a currency that has lost all its value, due to to the manipulation of the traders of Wall Street or whatever street serves the same function on the other side of the planet.

    The Greeks had a word for it, “hubris”.

  2. Quite right. While people do struggle against difficult odds, almost all of us are just one “unlucky” event from disaster and a certain sympathy for the plight of others seems to be commendable.

    Under all that he does have a bit of a reasonable point: some people create their own problems and do expect too much from others. However, to lump everyone into two classes (the “53%” and the “boo hoos”) seems to grossly and wrongly oversimplify things.

  3. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Even if some people are full of self-pity, blame the world for their own failings and expect others to save them, that’s no reason to mock them.

    Mocking or jeering at people who are “failing” in life is like hitting someone who’s on the ground.

    It’s not in good taste.

  4. The fact that the world is not fair is not a convincing argument against the morality of trying to make it more so.

  5. As with many fallacies, the “Life’s not fair, deal with it” argument works both ways. By his own logic, he should stop complaining about how he pays taxes when some people don’t, ’cause, ya know, “life’s not fair.”

  6. I hate fair almost as much as I hate moral arguments.

    Fair is, ultimately a social construct designed to prevent lose lose situations.
    We ARBITRATE conflicts of interest to minimise overall social loss.

    Take that principle to its illogical socialist conclusion and it results in lose lose situations.

    King Solomon..and the baby. Kill the damned thing and no more argument over whose it is..(yes I know that’s not the point of the story..)

    Socialism today is in the business of ensuring a Solomon solution. Reduce everyone to abject poverty, and that’s the end of the ‘but he is richer then me’ complaint…

    The problem of course is the arrogance of people who think they can design a society irrespective of the imperatives of (human) nature.

  7. I would imagine that the best way of leading into a conversation about the problems on Wall Street might begin by analyzing them, instead of reciting stale Cold War mantras.

    For instance, one might (rightly) point out that the social engineers at Goldman-Sachs are in the wrong. And one might just as well point out that this Erickson person is in denial about human nature if he thinks that massive income inequality can be or will be tolerated by a rational and informed population.

  8. (To be clear, my reply above was directed at Leo’s comments, not Mike’s.)

  9. I have a job and I pay Federal taxes and I stand 100% with Occupy Wall Street and the 99%.

  10. It’s funny that we constantly revise our online games to be more fair, and we see it as an obvious good and don’t take complaints seriously from whiners who have benefited from its unfairness, yet we are too afraid of the same whiners in real life to create meaningful change.

  11. I have a couple of questions:

    1) If humans are imperfect, how can we expect to create a perfect institution? As I see the Hobbes’ argument hinges on the assumption that human constructs are capable of perfection. Of course, I could be wrong.

    2) This may sound silly but what is the difference between “fairness” and equality of distribution. And if this is to be truly sought, how is it measured?

    I’m a new reader and I readily acknowledge I’m in over my head. However, I figure if I’m to learn I should engage.

  12. Fairness is not natural, so our attempts to make it so, will fail. But it is worth trying. And we have to try.

    Are we as humans really made to be fair? Is fairness beyound our control? Does our genetic make up make it impossible for us to ever achieve fairness?

    Can we really overcome the seven deadly sins (greed,envy,pride, lust etc) which by and large prevents us from achiveing fairness.

    It would appear, the drivers of the seven dealy sins are hard wired into each of us to varying degrees from birth – it is what it is.

    Could it be that our desire to achieve fairness, in the artificial world, is not strong enough to overcome our natural disposition to be unfair?

    And is that we need Dualism in life to truly appreciate the spectrum of outcomes – and that is what keeps us intersted in life and makes us forever seek meaningful answers – and that is essentially the essence of life – a quest that we have yet to definitively find the true beginning and the true ending -if ever there was a beginning and there is ever going to be an end.

  13. “Even if some people are full of self-pity, blame the world for their own failings and expect others to save them, that’s no reason to mock them. Mocking or jeering at people who are ‘failing’ in life is like hitting someone who’s on the ground.
    It’s not in good taste.”

    One problem is that “good taste” like “fairness” is, in practice, rather tricky to define.

  14. Conditional on your reading of Erickson’s statement, I agree with your analysis. However, I read the original quote differently. I don’t know anything about Erickson, I’m just commenting on the paragraph as written.

    First, he seems to accept that real hardship creates a legitimate claim (or at least one that he does not mock) and reserves his criticism for a person whose absolute situation is extremely good relative to the average person in the world, whose complaint is that someone has it better. I have no opinion about how many, if any, OWS protestors that describes but if accurate it’s a legitimate point against the movement.

    Second, he does not seem to say it’s wrong or hopeless to try to make thing fairer, especially quickly and on a society-wide basis. I read his claim as that OWS is not working to make things fairer, but demanding someone else do that task for them. It’s hard work to make things fairer. Historically, the attempt has often proven to be fraudulent. Even when done honestly, it has often backfired. Of course it has sometimes succeeded as well, but it required courageous, careful and good-hearted work. Again, I have no opinion about the willingness of OWS protestors to do more than complain, but the charge of unproductive whining is telling if true.

  15. I wholly endorse Ben’s point above: As with many fallacies, the “Life’s not fair, deal with it” argument works both ways. By his own logic, he should stop complaining about how he pays taxes when some people don’t, ’cause, ya know, “life’s not fair.”

    Erikson’s rejection of the welfare state is coming from some form of economic libertarianism, which means it is almost certainly a complaint made on fairness (justice) grounds.

  16. It goes without saying, or ought to go without saying, that the petitioning of government in order to redress grievances has a long and cherished history in democratic societies. Let’s contrast that with “complaining”. “Petitioning for the redressal of grievances” is what you do when a sector of the economy has demonstrated that it is fraught with systematic risk, and as a result, families lose their houses. “Complaining” is what you do when your iced cream falls off the cone.

    Further — for anyone who is genuinely interested in following this story — many OWS protestors recently took direct action by closing their Citibank accounts en masse. That’s not just an expression of grievances. It’s an economic revolt.

    But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the OWS protestors really were “merely complaining”. Even if that were so, then the most enthusiastic cynic ought to be self-conscious enough to recognize how comically perverse it is to cluck in disapproval at protestors for “mere complaining” — at least, once you consider the fact that those protestors are ‘complaining’ about how they lack the resources to redress the social injustices that are a consequence of their lack of resources. You might just as well mock a paraplegic man for expressing frustration at his inability to dance.

  17. In response to Benjamin Nelson:

    I have to disagree that closing bank accounts is an economic revolt. If anything it’s a sign of the free market in action. It shows the duality of the protesters. I believe that this essay articulates a concise argument:

    http://mises.org/daily/5762/The-Paradox-of-the-Outraged

  18. Robert, I think we might be tripping over semantics to some extent. My point is that it’s a direct economic action, as opposed to a mere expression of grievances. You seem to be commenting on matters related to ideology, which is a different issue.

    On the matter of ideology, if you’re suggesting that the economic revolt was consistent with capitalism, you may be right. First, Chris Hedges referred to the protesters as the “true conservatives”, and he was onto something. They support the rule of law. Second, one might add that a fair number of them advocate the proper functioning of free markets based on sound regulatory practices. (Unlike, say, the Austrian school and Von Miseans, which you link to, who ultimately believe in utopian markets.) Third, OWS actively encourages the involvement of political centrists in their Facebook updates, and denies being a purely left-wing movement.

  19. Benjamin, perhaps you’re right in my misunderstanding. As I said in my first post I fully acknowledge I’m in over my head, but trying to learn.

    I believe that the definition of fairness is rooted in one’s ideology, and for many is synonymous with equal distribution (some of the OWS “demands” do trend in that direction). I think this may be Erickson’s main point of contention with OWS protesters, he perceives them as asking for equal distribution.

    Aside from Erickson’s perceptions, there is the question of whether or not fairness is achievable. I’m not convinced that Hobbes’s separation of the natural and artificial worlds separates them to the point that perfection is possible in the artificial world. This assumes that humans are capable of perfection despite our own flaws.

    As far as ideology is concerned, I’ll concede that OWS believes in the rule of law. They must in order to enforce “fairness”. However, I’ve not heard or read of any “demands” that speak to sound regulatory practices that promote a free market. I also disagree that Austrian economics is based on utopian markets (though I admit there may be some bias in that comment).

    Lastly, I want to acknowledge that what I’ve read indicates that OWS protesters do not have a list of official grievances.

  20. Robert, that’s perfectly okay. :) We were just talking at cross-purposes. I was gabbing about tactics, while you’re focusing on ideology.

    As far as I can tell, justice essentially means something like this: everybody gets what they deserve, and deserve what they get. Fairness means that everyone deserves to be equal, in some sense — for example, equal in opportunity, in outcome, in treatment before the law, in capacity, etc.

    I agree that fairness has an ideological component. We have a lot of different opinions about what it means to deserve something, and what sense in which people deserve to be held as equal.

    However, fairness is not the same as levelling, or an equal distribution of wealth. If this Erickson person believes that the OWS protestors are levellers, then he has interpreted the 99% slogan in the most implausible way that he can. Campaigning against massive inequality of wealth is not necessarily (or actually) the same as advocating complete equality of wealth.

    As far as I can tell, the OWS’s official demands reduce to two things: a) economic syndicalism, b) involvement and participation in empowering the movement. Pretty modest demands. To be sure, economic syndicalism can be tough going sometimes, but it’s possible in small organizations. And these official demands are quiet about regulatory reform, for now, though obviously regulatory reform is just one of the many issues that a movement like this one hopes to achieve.

    It’s the modesty of the official demands that causes the national media to make the sad panda face. They want to hear the bottom line policy demands. As a result, the national media thinks that the movement’s unofficial hopes — for instance, regulatory reform — are more interesting and important than their official demands. (At least, that’s my most charitable explanation for why they completely ignore the movement’s official statements, as if they were spoken in an alien language.)

    But there are two reasons why policy demands aren’t front and centre.

    First, not everybody is a political economist. These matters are complex, and involve technical expertise; as Matt Taibbi put it, “the primary challenge of opposing the 50-headed hydra of Wall Street corruption… is that it’s extremely difficult to explain the crimes of the modern financial elite in a simple visual. The essence of this particular sort of oligarchic power is its complexity and day-to-day invisibility: Its worst crimes, from bribery and insider trading and market manipulation, to backroom dominance of government and the usurping of the regulatory structure from within, simply can’t be seen by the public or put on TV.” Everybody knows that what is wrong can be traced back to the relationship between Wall Street financial firms and the government, but the concrete solutions on how to deal with that will have to be articulated by the experts. For example, the manifold of seasoned academics who are speaking their piece every day at the protests — at the invitation of the protestors.

    Second, while the movement is growing by leaps and bounds, the movement is still not powerful enough to realistically expect to campaign for regulatory policy reform. These are ordinary people living by ordinary means. So first they have to exert the powers that they have in educating each other and in shaping the national dialogue. They’ve done their part with the speaker series, and ought to keep doing that, but now it’s up to the media to do their part by listening and learning. And as far as that goes, it’s not the movement’s fault that newsmedia editors and producers are lazy, fickle, and mean.

  21. Pod,

    Even if we assume that fairness is not natural, it does not seem that we are doomed to fail-at least in the context of the “artificial world.”

    I would suspect that we are as wired to be fair as we are wired to be unfair. After all, the various experiments designed to test for unfairness are matched by experiments that show that we seem to have a sense of justice as well.

  22. Keith,

    Mocking the weak seems to always be in poor taste.

    “Shame, Corin,” said the King. “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.”

  23. Aaron,

    Those are legitimate points to consider. However, in his interview on CNN (which might not reflect his full view) he certainly seemed to be dismissing the entire movement with his remarks and seemed to take the fact that life is not fair as a refutation of the criticisms being made by the folks in said movement. However, it would be fair to give him a full hearing and a chance to present a developed and complete view of fairness and so on.

  24. Jonathan,

    Good point-he can, it could seem, be refuted on his own principle.

  25. Benjamin,

    Excellent points. One tactic that seems to have been broadly used by “critics” of the Occupiers is to cast them as mere whiners and complainers rather than as being (at least some of them at least) people who do, in fact, have legitimate grounds for being critical of the current system.

  26. Benjamin,

    One interesting, if slightly off topic point, is that the news media is routinely cast by certain conservatives (such as Palin) as having a liberal bias. The Occupy Wall Street movement would certainly seem to provide a test for this bias. After all, folks who are liberal would seem to be rather in support of the Occupiers, yet the media folks begin largely by ignoring it, then proceeded to generally presenting the same talking points (“what do they want?”), and now they seem to be paying somewhat more attention-but hardly what the movement seems to actually deserve in terms of its the scope and importance.

    The talking point about the Occupiers not having a concrete set of solutions was something of a straw man-after all, as you note, even the professionals have a hard time sorting out the complications of the financial system (which is, of course, hardly an accident). Interestingly enough, the Daily Show and the Colbert report have done some of the best explanations of the economic and political systems (such as Colbert’s recent adventures in the land of Super Pac).

  27. Hey Mike. I think there’s credible grounds to believe that the mainstream newsmedia has a definite bias in favor of the *establishment*. Hence, facts are interpreted by experts, and experts vetted primarily through relations to government and power elites. The establishment is a fixed bureaucracy, which has definite contours, and doesn’t bend immediately to populist whims. The media doesn’t care who you are or what you believe in, left or right. To the media, all protesters are anti-establishment forces by default, and have to prove themselves otherwise before being taken seriously.

    On first glance, it may indeed seem perverse that Palin et al. think that the media has a liberal bias. But keep in mind that Palin and her fellow travellers resent the federal government, and explicitly seek to dismantle it. They advocate confederation, or state’s rights. So it’s no surprise that from their point of view the media would seem too liberal. Anything with any strong ties to the federal establishment will strike them as being too left-wing.

  28. Benjamin,

    That certainly makes sense. As I teach in my critical thinking class, the news corporations are businesses and this shapes the way the news is handled. This is not to say that this entails they must be biased or wrong (that would be fallacious reasoning, of course) but it does give one grounds for looking at the news with a critical eye and awareness of this factor.

  29. Mike LaBossiere,

    You made some good points.

    However, you have misunderstood Stoic philosophy. They would not agree to let injustice occur. Some Stoics even condemned authority figures for being immoderately “soft on crime” out of unreasonable pity.

    They also don’t think we need to just “deal with” anything. They endorse eudaimonia and think virtuous person is happy/flourishing.

  30. James,

    I apologize for not being clearer. While stoics are clearly not obligated to endure injustice, they do seem to have a “deal with it” view towards the woes of life that are beyond their control-as in the nifty metaphor of the dog being dragged along behind the cart.

  31. Mike,

    The Stoics think everything that happens is guided by Divine Reason and we should therefore assent to reality as it exists. They endorse “amour fati.” They don’t think we need to deal with anything “bad.” They don’t think anything bad happens (in the grand scheme of things).

    They agree that we have to learn how to “not get everything we personally want” but it’s nothing we should be upset about. We shouldn’t merely “deal” with it because nothing bad happened to “deal with”. We should learn to appreciate life for what it is.

  32. Following Mr Erickson’s argument to its logical conclusion, if suddenly the the govt imposed a 100% income tax, Mr. Erickson’s has no right to complain/protest. Hey, life’s not fair!

    His real argument is “I disagree. Now shut up”

  33. I know a case where a first-year student found a particular professor to be “unfair” in giving out marks in the sense that this professor gave lower marks than others (more stringent and demands higher performance/quality/whatever to get higher marks, though it is not clear what the requirements are). This is an A+ student and decided that she will not put up with that unfairness/inequity because the same amount of effort (which is to say 110%) will yield lower marks and hence drag down her average. She dropped the course and the biology pursuit and went into a chemistry stream instead.

    Yes, this is a philosphy discussion but in practical real-life there are often other factors that dictate decisions and outcomes. We may live in a natural world subject to the vagaries of nature but there are still some things which we can do to control our own outcomes. People with more financial resources are likely more equipped to deal with natural circumstances.

    Natural selection is unfair by design. That is how survival of the fittest is achieved.

  34. David,

    The class would be unfair if the professor did not reasonable match the performance with the grade. Of course (as you note) sorting out what would be fair in the practical sense is rather challenging.

    Natural selection could be seen as fair or unfair (or even as being such that fairness/unfairness does not apply). It could be fair in the sense that it plays no favorites and only survival merit matters. It could also be seen as unfair in that there is no matching of survival and other forms of merit other than survival value. And, of course, it could be argued that fairness only applies to intentional agents and not blind forces.

  35. Thanks for this reflection. I am often befuddled by the 99% claim, as 99% might be a means of identification but hardly indicates any agreement or understanding of what people in Occupy Wall Street are actually doing. An economic system seeks to distribute goods and services to a population. One of the many points not being fully elucidated by Occupy Wall Street is the notion that what is not fair is the means by which our politicians set economic policy. Instead of addressing inequalities that a market system inevitably has, they instead reinforce those inequalities in fiscal policy because they are beholden to those people and corporations that ensure their political careers. That is an unfairness that can be addressed with term limits, campaign financing laws, and politicians who recognize their first job is to be a public servant.

  36. Its interesting that Erickson’s 53% represents those who pay taxes. This implicitly suggests that everyone should pay taxes, which can only be suggested if equality is employed. So its hard to take the 53% seriously when their main ‘criticism’ of OWS is “life is not ‘fair’, get used to it”, while holding underlying assumptions that the tax system should be ‘fair’ and everyone should pay taxes.

  37. Ben,

    Good point. One obvious downside of saying “life is not fair” and taking that to justify unfairness is that it effectively precludes a person from arguing against anything on the grounds that it is unfair. As such, Erickson would need some other reason as to why the other folks should pay taxes.

  38. I have some questions myself. What exactly is perfection and how do we define it? Before we can achieve something don’t we have to define criteria for it?

    For fairness we have multiple definitions. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fairness

    If we look at definition number 2 my question is why should everything always follow the rules.

    Let me give an example for definition number 2. A husband is taking his wife to the hospital because she is in labor and about to give birth. He is speeding and a cop pulls him over.

    If life was truly fair then by this standard what he would deserve is a ticket and if reckless driving he would go to jail. What if the cop decided to give mercy and take them to the hospital and not give the ticket or take him to jail? Technically, can we say life wasn’t fair but it was merciful and in the husband and wife’s favor?

    Why is fairness always a postitive thing to have? If we had 100% fairness how would we have mercy?

  39. magicman-that was heavy….if fairness is what we are after, the government would be the last on my list to oversee it! What if everyone would look at the man(or woman) on your left and on your right and if they need help,help them. Not up the street or in the next town, this means there are 2 looking out for you!

  40. If fairness is what we are after, the government would be the last on my list to oversee it! What if everyone would look at the man(or woman) on your left and on your right and if they need help,help them. Not up the street or in the next town, this means there are 2 looking out for you! Somewhere it is written that this was a perfect world once,,,,,,

  41. Glenn,

    Who could be trusted to oversee fairness?

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