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Monkeying With Logic

Here’s a letter that I sent earlier this week to the New York Times:

In “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Fairness” (June 4) Nicholas Kristof recounts what happens when human experimenters arbitrarily give some monkeys cucumber slices while giving other monkeys more highly prized grapes.  When the monkeys receiving the cucumbers see other monkeys getting grapes, they react with disgust.  From this experiment Mr. Kristof correctly concludes that monkeys care about fairness.  But Mr. Kristof then draws a further conclusion, namely, that the monkeys’ disgust is sparked by the ‘income’ differences.  This latter conclusion is unjustified.

What is unfair about this distribution of cucumbers and grapes is that it is completely arbitrary.  It’s connected in no way to any differences in effort or contribution on the part of the monkeys.  Would the monkeys who get the cucumber slices be disgusted if the monkeys who get the grapes have to work twice or three times as hard as is required to get cucumber slices?  The experiment as recounted by Mr. Kristof supplies no answer to this question, although a plausible prediction is that monkeys would find unequal ‘distributions’ of cucumbers and grapes far less unfair and disgusting when such differences reflect perceived differences in effort or merit.

If for no reason other than the fact that incomes in modern market societies are not arbitrarily dispensed and ‘distributed’ (as they are in the monkey experiment) but, instead, are produced and largely reflect differences in the contributions that each of us makes to the well-being of our fellows, it’s disappointingly unscientific for Mr. Kristof to leap from the results of these experiments with monkeys to the conclusion that humans suffer anger and disgust at income differences regardless of the source(s) of these differences.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

This column by Kristof is very revealing about the presumptions that typical NYT columnists have about the social processes that generate incomes.  Here, Kristof apparently assumes that such incomes are literally distributed rather arbitrarily.


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