An appeal for fairness in society
Anyone who has young children - or, for that matter, any individual who's ever been a child - will testify that we appreciate the importance of fairness from an early age, or no less than its usefulness when appealing to authority. "But that is not fair!" is among the earliest indications that a kid is creating a moral sense - even if their conception of fairness does not usually accord with their parents' view.
We understand that this commitment to fairness persists into adulthood. Experiments in behavioural economics demonstrate that we'll punish "free riders" - these who advantage from others' efforts without contributing equally themselves - even if that indicates we wind up worse off ourselves. To put it another way, our cognitive biases mean that we punish perceived unfairness even when that conflicts with our narrow economic interests.
And narrow could be the operative word. Regarded inside the context of isolated transactions, such apparently self-defeating behaviour is difficult to rationalise. Set within a social context, on the other hand, it makes far more sense. Societies which prize fairness and egalitarianism may perhaps basically be more stable; these values appear to have been held dear by our distant ancestors (see "Inequality: Why egalitarian societies died out").
But we look to possess abandoned this emphasis on equality with regards to the style of modern civilisation (see "Inequality: That are the 1 per cent?").
Inequality is rife each within and amongst present day societies. Western societies, in specific, are profoundly skewed, by just about any measure you care to name.
And however for significantly of the previous 40 years, inequality has remained a topic of significant discussion for just a little cadre of academics. Only just lately has the Occupy movement, among other developments, brought it to the forefront of public consideration.
Why? One particular purpose, possibly, is that more than the past four decades the prevailing political and economic rhetoric, buttressed through the failure of communism, has been that inequality is inevitable. As the customary parental rejoinder to childish protestations goes: life isn't fair. There will always be a heap, and there will always be someone at the bottom of it. Against this backdrop, what now constitutes fairness is provision for the latter group to climb, and occasionally rocket, towards the top.
Within this way, fairness becomes a matter of equality of chance: "anyone can turn out to be president". But it is actually increasingly hard to accept that we are meeting even this restricted objective. Inequality has important detrimental effects on the well being of those on the lowest rungs of society (see "Inequality: Of wealth and health"), generating it less likely that they'll advance their station in life.
And in the other end with the social ladder? Earlier this week the UK-based Tax Justice Network reported that a staggering $21 trillion, and maybe a lot a lot more, has been stockpiled in tax havens - practically half of it by just 92, 000 folks, roughly the richest 0.001 per cent - utilizing the most beneficial economic and legal chicanery that money can buy.
No doubt a deeply entrenched elite has fostered this situation to shield its personal interests. But it might have been allowed to become entrenched as a result of an additional set of cognitive biases. A lot of us seem keenest to seek out absolutely free riders among those which have least - the indigent and dispossessed, the stateless as well as the homeless. Perhaps this can be the so-called "just-world hypothesis" at operate: the belief that the world is an orderly place in which people get their just desserts. To become rich should be to have been rewarded for your abilities and grit; to become poor is usually to be feckless and undeserving.
Even when we do contemplate the "1 per cent", we concentrate on folks - overpaid bank bosses and under-talented celebrities being favourite targets - while the structures that support them remain untouched. Charities and lobbyists have long identified about, and exploited, our propensity to become more quickly swayed by person narratives than by rational consideration on the wants of groups. Enduring reform, as opposed to opportunist retribution, is tough to enact.
But such biases can function each strategies. The UK government's new proposal to "name and shame" those that embrace aggressive tax avoidance might seem a toothless gesture, but so considerably do we prize our reputations that we will visit considerable expense to guard them. So the courts of public opinion may possibly prove a lot more powerful than those with the judicial process.
Such points of leverage may well be helpful to those that choose to build a more equal society. But all of us will want to bear them in mind as we continue to go over the degrees and types of inequality we wish to tolerate. If we select to redefine fairness once once more, and remake our societies accordingly, we should take pains to prevent falling foul of our biases. Since it's as much as us alone: there is certainly no authority to whom we are able to merely wail about unfairness in the hope of restitution. We're the responsible adults now.