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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Fair’s fair — right?”

In my column for the October 16th, 2009, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I did my best to explain the error of inferring unfairness from differences in income. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Fair’s fair — right?

Political discourse has more than its share of question-begging words.

For example, ponder the word “fair.”

“Fair” is perhaps the most misused word in all of politics. By definition, everyone this side of masochism and sociopathy favors “fairness.” No one believes that society would be a better place if only it were less fair.

The difficult question, though, is “What is ‘fair’?”

We have little difficulty distinguishing fair from unfair in small settings. If Mom bakes a pie and Junior scarfs down three-quarters of it before any other family members sit down for dessert, that’s unfair of Junior.

If I agree to mow your lawn in exchange for you washing my car and then renege on my part of the bargain after you wash my car, that’s unfair of me.

But distinguishing “fair” from “unfair” in large, complex settings is vastly more difficult than politicians make it seem.

Consider the distribution of income. Is it unfair that some people earn multiple times more dollars — often hundreds of times more dollars — than other people earn?

Seems unfair to many folks. Why should Sal the surgeon take home a salary 50 times larger than the salary taken home by Tony the teacher?

If Sal and Tony were assigned to their jobs by some authority and if that authority pays Sal more than it pays Tony simply because Sal has a more beautiful sister than does Tony, that would be unfair.

But in market economies persons aren’t assigned to jobs. Each of us chooses our career. If Tony chose to become a teacher, that means he chose not to become a physician.

Also in market economies, salaries are determined by impersonal market forces rather than by some authority.

So how can it be unfair that Tony doesn’t earn a salary as high as Sam’s> In a very real sense, he chose not to do so.

Tony’s reasons for choosing a teaching career (and avoiding a career in medicine) might be admirable or understandable. Perhaps Tony loves working with children. Perhaps he relishes having long holiday breaks and summers off. Perhaps he cannot stomach the sight of blood. Perhaps he was put off by the prospect of spending all the extra time in school required to become a physician.

Whatever his reason, he clearly gained — or expected to gain — by making the choice that he made. In Tony’s mind, when all the expected costs and benefits — monetary and nonmonetary — of practicing medicine were weighed against those of teaching, he obviously concluded that teaching offered him the better standard of living.

Of course, it’s true that Tony would have preferred to have all the benefits he gets from teaching — for example, long holiday breaks — and the higher salary paid to a surgeon.

But that option was never on the table — not for Tony, not for Sal, not for anyone.

It’s also true that Tony might come to regret having chosen to become a teacher rather than a surgeon. But so, too, might Sal come to regret his choice to become a surgeon.

Our imperfect capacity for making decisions, or for seeing the future more clearly, is unfortunate, but it’s no source of unfairness.

The bottom line is that looking merely at one aspect of people’s lives — the amount of money they earn — provides far too little information for determining if their lots in life are “fair” or “unfair.” All things considered (and it would be unfair not to consider all things!), Tony’s lower salary as a teacher does not seem unfair when compared to Sal’s higher salary as a surgeon.

Another possibility is that Tony wanted to become a surgeon, but he doesn’t have the brains to get into medical school.

Under these circumstances, we might feel sorry for Tony. But, once again, there’s no unfairness in the picture. No one broke the rules of the game. No one singled Tony out, or singled out the ethnic group to which Tony belongs, to prevent him from becoming a surgeon.

I wanted to play quarterback in the NFL, but I utterly lack the physical requirements for that job. All the desire in the world would never have enabled me to earn my living on the gridiron.

Feel free, if you wish, to pity me. But neither you nor I can find anyone or anything to accuse of being “unfair” toward me.

When politicians thunder about “fairness,” they too often focus on only a handful of facts, selectively chosen to portray eminently fair situations as being unfair. And that’s unfair!