The tyranny of fairness

Terror in  a tiny ice cream shop

Not so long ago– all right, very long ago– I had a summer job in an ice cream shop called Friendly’s.  One early weekday afternoon a call came in from a local day care.

“Hi, I just wanted to give you a heads-up,” said day care lady #1.  “We’re going to be at your window in about ten minutes with thirty preschoolers for kid cones.”

I thanked her for calling and then made a suggestion: could she find out what flavors the children want before getting to the window?  She agreed that this was an excellent idea, and hung up.

Two minutes later the phone rang again, and I spoke to day care lady #2.

“Are we going to get a discount for the cones?  Since we’re doing your job for you?”

Different kinds of people

I find I can learn a lot about a person by their response to this story, which is either:

A: as an employee of an ice cream shop part of my job is to take customer orders, so of course someone else doing this should be incentivized in some way, and expecting a discount is perfectly reasonable


B: the benefit for both parties is obvious.  The ice cream is delivered more quickly– and all at once– to all thirty children, simplifying the lives of every adult involved.  This is a problem resolution unrelated to pure financial concerns.

Not incidentally, my answer was B.  I told day care lady #2 that if she wanted to walk up each of the thirty children to the window one at a time, have them request a flavor, and wait for us to scoop it for them, that was entirely up to her.

After all, I had nowhere to be and it wasn’t going to be my problem if kid #1 was done before kid #30 got his ice cream and then decided to play in traffic because he was bored.

But answer A isn’t necessarily wrong.  It’s just a different way of looking at things.

The cost of fairness

Day care lady #2’s question can be rephrased as follows: “it’s not fair that I have to do a job you are being paid to do, for free.”

A lot of people in this country– and I imagine everywhere else too– worry about what is and isn’t fair, and sometimes that leads to bad decisions.  In the above example the bad decision was to not get a list of flavors ready beforehand and then spending a half an hour in an ice cream parking lot with difficult-to-control preschoolers.  Sure, it might have been a “more fair” decision, but it certainly wasn’t the “right” decision.

Or take a more complex example: long-term homelessness.  Between emergency room, outpatient care and rehabilitation expenses, it would cost taxpayers less if the sickest long-term homeless in our cities were simply given apartments to live in.

But that would never happen, because it wouldn’t be “fair”.  How do you tell a taxpayer that the guy living down the street is living there at the expense of his tax money?  “I’m working to pay my rent, and he isn’t doing anything but getting a handout.”

Would they be right to say that?  Sure, if they’re measuring “fair” that way.  One could try and argue that it’s also not “fair” to see twice as much of one’s tax money go to the same guy for five visits a year to the emergency room.  But that won’t work because nobody envies an emergency room visit, whereas a free apartment is something anyone could use.  And since the third option is to shoot the homeless, we’re stuck with the plan that costs the most but makes the least fiscal sense.  Because it’s more “fair”.

Voting for fairness

Preying on the idea of perceived fairness is almost always a political win.  If you’re a politician who wants to defund a welfare plan, you’re going to get a lot of votes by drumming up examples of welfare cheats.  “It’s not fair, you have to work so hard and this is where your tax money is going.”  The argument that the cheats are a significant minority doesn’t mean much, because for someone in a fairness mindset, all it takes is one cheat to prove the system is unfair.

Unfairness is something everyone can agree is bad, even when it isn’t.  I personally believe the wealthiest people in the country should also pay the largest percentage of their income in taxes, but graduated tax rates are inherently unfair in the sense that not everyone is being treated equally.  Yet it makes the most sense for the economy as a whole.  It’s also pretty easy to argue that Affirmative Action is a deliberate, legislated unfairness, as long as you’re prepared to ignore the unlegislated unfairness it’s there to correct.

Really, a surprising number of political issues can be boiled down to “They have something you don’t and that’s unfair.”

We’re all in this together

That’s what I wish my teenage self had said to day care lady #2.  “We’re all in this together.”  We all pay taxes, and some of those taxes go to educate our children, keep our roads paved, pay for our firehouses and police, and keep our drinking water clean.  Some of the taxes also go toward caring for the least fortunate people in our society, and that’s a burden every society does and should carry.

And sometimes the fastest way to feed thirty kids ice cream is the best plan.  Whether it’s fair or not.

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No Comments

  1. Janice Flahiff on May 13, 2011 at 7:29 am

    This post is a good discussion starter, giving concrete examples of concepts as the common good, compassion, community responsibility, and of course, fairness.
    Thank you.
    Found this post through tag surfer (public health)

    • genedoucette on May 13, 2011 at 9:22 am

      Janice, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found the blog!

  2. Tamson Smith on May 13, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Great article, Gene! I can almost hear (and smell) the two old ladies who came in for coffee and cigarettes in the afternoon. (*puff* there’s nothing wrong with smoking, said in a voice drowning in black-lung). Ah, Friendly’s.

    A couple of years back a friend at work, an evangelical christian from the south, said to me during the discussions of universal healthcare, “Aren’t you mad this is going to raise your taxes? Aren’t you mad there will be people taking advantage who aren’t really in need?” My answer was, “I can spare a few hundred dollars more a year for someone who needs help. As to those who take advantage, there will always be someone gaming the system, why penalize those who are desperate?” He actually said to me, “Wow, you’re a better person than I am.” (and, btw, he knows I’m an atheist.)

    • genedoucette on May 13, 2011 at 11:16 am

      That’s great. See, I’m trying to understand that mentality, but I can’t quite get my mind around it. The “don’t you think it’s unfair that…” idea has somehow become the only defining metric for so many people. I think a lot of things are unfair, but if you’re deciding it’s more fair to allow a kid to die for lack of health care so you can prevent the possibility that someone will get a better deal for their health care coverage than you have, you need to go back and reassess your personal morality.

      • Tamson Smith on May 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm

        Having grown up with parents who did their fair share of keeping up with the Jones, it seems to me we are a society of people who judge ourselves based on what everyone else has/does/seems to be like and alternatively feel better about themselves by feeling superior to others? I wish more people would adopt the mantra, “It’s not all about me.”

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