Sunday, July 17, 2005

Fair Game Theorist

According to Don Arthur at Troppo Armadillo, Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies (not to be confused with Peter Saunders, Director of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, who is no relation):

... likes to think of society as a game of Monopoly -- if one of the players succeeds in driving the others in bankruptcy there's no problem so long as everyone obeys the rules ...

The linked article has the provocative title "What is Fair About a 'Fair Go'?" It begins:

An egalitarian, a meritocrat and a classical liberal once sat down to play the board game, Monopoly. All agreed at the outset that it would be fair to give each player the same amount of cash with which to play.

As the game progresses, the players - well, the egalitarian and the meritocrat at least - start behaving badly. The egalitarian is miffed because he's ended up with Old Kent Road instead of Mayfair and demands a redistribution of property and monies to restore fairness to the game. The meritocrat is peeved because the fall of the dice is not properly rewarding skilful, serious play. The classical liberal responds to these infantile outbursts with a patient sigh and explains:

We have all played by the rules. Nobody has cheated, and nobody has stolen anybody else's money or title deeds. Nobody pre-ordained the present distribution of money and property—it is the aggregated outcome of each individual's free and uncoerced actions and decisions. How, then, can this distribution be considered unfair? What would be unfair is if we agreed by a majority vote to take money or property from the most successful player to share it out among the other two, or to give more to the player deemed most deserving. If we were to do that, we would undermine the principle that the same rules must apply to all players. The best player would then probably go elsewhere, and our game sooner or later would collapse into bickering and chaos.

This is by far the best piece of dialogue Saunders' gives to any of the characters in his little fable but, while it reveals where Saunders' sympathies lie in this contest between three notions of fairness, it doesn't help the situation any. The players eventualy go their separate ways, after the meritocrat and the egalitarian have both indulged in further displays of bad temper. The story ends on this curious note:

The liberal picked up the dice, bade the other two farewell, and went off in search of a game of Snakes and Ladders.

For a while, this had me wondering why the classical liberal took the dice and nothing else. Presumably they were his, which leaves you wondering who owned the rest of the Monopoly set - one assumes that it was the meritocrat. And were they really able to get the game started without a big argument about who got the top hat token, who got the little dog, and who got stuck with that wheel dingus with the factory chimney poking out the top? And what gave the classical liberal the idea that it is even remotely possible to play a game of Monopoly that doesn't collapse into bickering and chaos?

What follows - the meat of the article - is a three paragraph examination of the importance of fairness, or rather 'fairness' in a society followed by a potted history of the evolution of the Australian notion of a 'fair go'. Then we get back to the point of the fable: the three different, and competing principles of fairness to be found in our culture:

The egalitarian definition of fairness focuses on the final distribution of resources. Anything that flattens out the distribution of income and wealth is fair; anything that makes it less equal is unfair. A less than equal distribution can only be justified if it can be demonstrated that no other pattern of distribution could make the worst-off people any better off (as in Rawls's 'difference principle').

Against this, a meritocratic definition of fairness focuses on the principle of 'just deserts'. Unequal outcomes are fair provided everybody has had a chance to compete on an equal basis. In particular, fairness requires that the most hard-working and talented people should reap the highest rewards (meritocracy rewards 'ability plus effort'), and this will only happen if there are no major obstacles blocking the achievement of meritorious individuals from the least advantaged backgrounds.

In contrast with both of these, the classical liberal conception of fairness denies the relevance of any distributional principle, whether egalitarian or meritocratic. Fairness simply requires an open system governed by the rule of law; it is judged by procedures, not outcomes. People must be free to accumulate assets and to transfer them as they see fit. Provided these rules are followed, the result is 'fair' (even if talented people go unrecognised or lazy people are favoured by luck or by birth).
These three principles of fairness are logically incompatible with one another.
[my emphasis]

Saunders' claim that these three definitions of fairness are logically incompatible is a bold one and deserves examination, if only because when someone tells you that three statements (however semantically complex) are logically incompatible then there's one damn statement too many. This can be illustrated with the help of some simple examples.

Consider these three assertions:

Socrates is a man.
Socrates is a cat.
Socrates is a dog.

You might be tempted to describe these as logically incompatible on the grounds that Socrates cannot be at once a man, a cat and a dog. Wrong; all three can be quite logically compatible if all three are false and Socrates is, in fact, a horse. At worst, Saunders' three definitions of fairness are merely incompatible and only by Saunders' assertion. They are logically compatible if, for example, Saunders has advanced three definitions of fairness, two of which he knows (somehow) to be false and one which he wrongly believes to be true. Being right about two commonly held beliefs being wrong and wrong about your own beliefs on the subject of those beliefs being right is an interesting little cognitive feat but by no means inconceivable.

Alternativley, all three definitions of fairness might be logically compatible and true, like the following three statements:

Socrates has a beard.
Socrates is smelly.
Socrates roots nanny goats.

These are all logically compatible and possibly true if Socrates is, in fact, a billy goat. They amount to partial descriptions of Socrates just as Saunders' three "logically incompatible" definitions of fairness might be accepted as partial definitions of what we mean by fairness in social settings a little more complex than your typical game of Monopoly.

Following on, Saunders says a little later:

The incompatibility of these three principles of fairness complicates any attempt to unravel what Australians mean when they express their support for a 'fair go.'

I think this statement overreaches the mark a little too - it may be difficult for Peter Saunders to unravel what Australians mean by a 'fair go' but that's only because he's set himself up to fail with a false dichotomy and a half - a false sesquidichotomy if you will.

No comments: