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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