Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Fair" is subjective

Economics professor Mark J. Perry:
In "The Armchair Economist," economist Steven E. Landsburg posed the following:
"Suppose that Jack and Jill draw equal amounts of water from a community well. Jack's income is $10,000, of which he is taxed 10%, or $1,000, to support the well. Jill's income is $100,000, of which she is taxed 5%, or $5,000, to support the well. In which direction is the policy unfair?"
An honest person will admit that this question has no indisputably right answer. Prof. Landsburg then asked
"If I can't tell what's fair in a world of two people and one well, how can I tell what's fair in a country with 250 million people and tens of thousands of government services?"
HT: Don Boudreaux

The words "fair" and "fairness" are two of the most dangerous words in the English language, for the following reasons:

1. People using those words (e.g. "fair trade," "fair wages") almost always follow with some proposal for government intervention, government regulation, or government force of some kind to correct some perceived "unfairness" and impose their notion of "fairness."

And to paraphrase Thomas Sowell:

2. In most cases, it is hopeless to try to have a rational discussion with those who use the words "fair" and "fairness."

3. "Fair" and "fairness" are two words that can mean virtually anything to anybody.

4. "Fair" and "fairness" are two of the most emotionally powerful words, but at the same time are words that are undefined (see #3).


Cindy said...

Point well made (no pun intended). Of course "fair" is subjective. Today, we are more and more influenced by emotion rather than reason. Many current battles in the "culture war" (take the gay marriage one, for example) rise and fall on emotion-charged arguments that are half-true or utterly false. The illuminati language fairy must be working overtime.

gcotharn said...

"Illuminati language fairy".