The Grim Logic of 'Fairness'

There are many who insist that one particular form of societal organization is "more fair" than others.  That's the apparent underlying theme of the "Occupy" movement that has been making headlines the past year.

Yet when one looks around the world and back in history, it is difficult to find a society that was not stratified, with a few having more and most having less.  Even tribal societies exhibit this trait.  There may not have been a lot of "more" to possess, but to the extent it existed, more was concentrated in the hands of the tribal elders and leaders.

Be it ancient Egyptian, Mayan, Minoan, or other old cultures, or the states of the 21st century, we simply don't have any examples that have distributed a society's wealth equally among its citizens.

The main difference among the various options for government seems to be the basis on which the unequal distribution is made.

In tribal societies, authority was held by either the elders, where status was often passed by lineage, or by outright acquisition of power through force.  As societies grew, there was a natural transition to monarchies.  (Though they still exist today, they are largely now ceremonial or exercise whatever authority they still have though another form of government.)

In a pure communistic system, the government is the sole arbiter of who gets what.  Inevitably, whatever power and wealth exists in the society resides in the hands of those who have risen through the ranks of the monopolistic political structure.  They typically either are unelected or "win" one-party elections.

Even if their personal income appears modest, their lifestyle is supported by the government.  They have the best, and often multiple homes; access to exclusive shops and services unavailable to the public; and easy access to transportation, vacations, aides, and assistants along with a host of other advantages unknown to the "99%" in that society.

Socialist societies offer similar advantages to the powerful, but typically through a mix of government-business partnerships.  Deals are made, inevitably in favor of those businesses that directly or indirectly support the government, and the anointed ones live in high style.

Other than including the business element, the main difference between communist and socialist forms of government is that the latter have multiple political parties.  The party in power can and does change over time, but the method of allocating unequal portions of wealth in a society to a relative few still heavily resides with the government.

On the other side of the equation is capitalism, though no country in the world has such an economic system in its pure form.  Here, winners and losers are decided by "the market."  Bill Gates became fantastically rich by starting a company that brought the personal computer to the masses.  Henry Ford created his wealth by introducing mass production of automobiles.  People in Hollywood came to their good fortune by making movies and TV shows the public enjoys watching.  In short, wealth is often made by offering an affordable product or service that is appreciated by the public on a wide scale.

The primary problem with the capitalist system is that the currently powerful can use their money and influence to stifle new competition.  A big company can sell its product at a loss for longer than the upstart can hold out.  Or they can swamp a young company with a massive advertising campaign or endless and expensive litigation.  Existing companies can even enlist the help of government agencies.  Here's just one example: in the U.S. in the 1930s, the introduction of commercial television was delayed by the Federal Communications Commission for almost 20 years at the behest of the radio industry (see "The Master Switch" by Tim Wu).  Such distortions of the market are typically painted in terms of the government protecting ordinary citizens.

It can be difficult to design a legal system that gives a truly level playing field that protects the legitimate rights of existing businesses without cheating new ones of their opportunity. 

It is not particularly odd that the most visible vocal proponents of a more equitable distribution of a society's wealth typically already have more than most.  Their social and political leanings are in sympathy with the powers that will be deciding who gets what, so there is little concern that any future actions will be to their disadvantage.  With their own security comfortably stowed, they can bask in self-congratulation that they are doing the right thing for the common folk.

Imagine that a truly equal society can be created.  Unless one is a true anarchist, it will still need a government, and a government requires people to administer its functions.  How long will it be before it is decided that some functions are more critical than others, that some buildings need to be bigger or fancier than others, that certain groups need different things or more supplies, and that certain equipment is more important here than there?  This "mission creep" is inevitable and inexorable.  Over time, it will lead to the same dramatic differences in distribution that societies have always seen.

In short, the idea that a model exists somewhere for a truly equal society is folly.  North Korea is the most tightly regimented, self-described communist country in the world (though it is arguably a dictatorial monarchy).  Hong Kong may be the most free-wheeling capitalist state in existence.  Yet both have a small group of people who live like kings and many more who don't (though there is little question which one most ordinary people would pick if given the choice).

The only real question is who, or what process, chooses the "haves"?  Do wealth and position come from learning to manipulate the levers of authority and force on the government side?  Or do these advantages come from the freedom to pursue our personal creative ideas and dreams?

There are many who insist that one particular form of societal organization is "more fair" than others.  That's the apparent underlying theme of the "Occupy" movement that has been making headlines the past year.

Yet when one looks around the world and back in history, it is difficult to find a society that was not stratified, with a few having more and most having less.  Even tribal societies exhibit this trait.  There may not have been a lot of "more" to possess, but to the extent it existed, more was concentrated in the hands of the tribal elders and leaders.

Be it ancient Egyptian, Mayan, Minoan, or other old cultures, or the states of the 21st century, we simply don't have any examples that have distributed a society's wealth equally among its citizens.

The main difference among the various options for government seems to be the basis on which the unequal distribution is made.

In tribal societies, authority was held by either the elders, where status was often passed by lineage, or by outright acquisition of power through force.  As societies grew, there was a natural transition to monarchies.  (Though they still exist today, they are largely now ceremonial or exercise whatever authority they still have though another form of government.)

In a pure communistic system, the government is the sole arbiter of who gets what.  Inevitably, whatever power and wealth exists in the society resides in the hands of those who have risen through the ranks of the monopolistic political structure.  They typically either are unelected or "win" one-party elections.

Even if their personal income appears modest, their lifestyle is supported by the government.  They have the best, and often multiple homes; access to exclusive shops and services unavailable to the public; and easy access to transportation, vacations, aides, and assistants along with a host of other advantages unknown to the "99%" in that society.

Socialist societies offer similar advantages to the powerful, but typically through a mix of government-business partnerships.  Deals are made, inevitably in favor of those businesses that directly or indirectly support the government, and the anointed ones live in high style.

Other than including the business element, the main difference between communist and socialist forms of government is that the latter have multiple political parties.  The party in power can and does change over time, but the method of allocating unequal portions of wealth in a society to a relative few still heavily resides with the government.

On the other side of the equation is capitalism, though no country in the world has such an economic system in its pure form.  Here, winners and losers are decided by "the market."  Bill Gates became fantastically rich by starting a company that brought the personal computer to the masses.  Henry Ford created his wealth by introducing mass production of automobiles.  People in Hollywood came to their good fortune by making movies and TV shows the public enjoys watching.  In short, wealth is often made by offering an affordable product or service that is appreciated by the public on a wide scale.

The primary problem with the capitalist system is that the currently powerful can use their money and influence to stifle new competition.  A big company can sell its product at a loss for longer than the upstart can hold out.  Or they can swamp a young company with a massive advertising campaign or endless and expensive litigation.  Existing companies can even enlist the help of government agencies.  Here's just one example: in the U.S. in the 1930s, the introduction of commercial television was delayed by the Federal Communications Commission for almost 20 years at the behest of the radio industry (see "The Master Switch" by Tim Wu).  Such distortions of the market are typically painted in terms of the government protecting ordinary citizens.

It can be difficult to design a legal system that gives a truly level playing field that protects the legitimate rights of existing businesses without cheating new ones of their opportunity. 

It is not particularly odd that the most visible vocal proponents of a more equitable distribution of a society's wealth typically already have more than most.  Their social and political leanings are in sympathy with the powers that will be deciding who gets what, so there is little concern that any future actions will be to their disadvantage.  With their own security comfortably stowed, they can bask in self-congratulation that they are doing the right thing for the common folk.

Imagine that a truly equal society can be created.  Unless one is a true anarchist, it will still need a government, and a government requires people to administer its functions.  How long will it be before it is decided that some functions are more critical than others, that some buildings need to be bigger or fancier than others, that certain groups need different things or more supplies, and that certain equipment is more important here than there?  This "mission creep" is inevitable and inexorable.  Over time, it will lead to the same dramatic differences in distribution that societies have always seen.

In short, the idea that a model exists somewhere for a truly equal society is folly.  North Korea is the most tightly regimented, self-described communist country in the world (though it is arguably a dictatorial monarchy).  Hong Kong may be the most free-wheeling capitalist state in existence.  Yet both have a small group of people who live like kings and many more who don't (though there is little question which one most ordinary people would pick if given the choice).

The only real question is who, or what process, chooses the "haves"?  Do wealth and position come from learning to manipulate the levers of authority and force on the government side?  Or do these advantages come from the freedom to pursue our personal creative ideas and dreams?

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