June 09, 2012

Fair Go, Mate

"The basic problem is that we care so much about fairness that we are often willing to sacrifice economic well-being to enforce it. Behavioral economists have shown that a sizable percentage of people are willing to pay real money to punish people who are taking from a common pot but not contributing to it." — James Surowiecki in a recent New Yorker meditating on the cost of what he thinks of as the inordinate preference for fairness over well-being in America.

But as he hints, it's really not fairness that Americans prize, it's punishment. If Americans cared a lot about fairness, the health, education, and justice systems (at least) in this country would be radically different — less blatantly reliant on the luck involved in being born to the right people at the right time and place, for one.

So often, because so many Americans have such a hard time admitting the fundamental role of luck in their lives, America relentlessly punishes bad luck and rewards good luck — all in the name of punishing idleness or rewarding hard work, all in the name of fairness.

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