Fairness & Justice

Earlier, I mentioned that a perfect tax system would be “progressive, universal, and fair.”

Fairness is one of those squishy words that we can say without fully understanding. We know what it means, but when we think about it, or try to define it, it vanishes like Keyser Soze. We know it has something to do with rules; children’s games are fair, because they have rules that ensure no one has too great of an advantage over another. Elections are fair, because (in theory) there’s no outside interference, and the win conditions are clear and mutually acceptable.

So fairness is about rules, but also about mutual acceptance. Fairness is a principle of tacit agreement that says “I understand that this is about the rules, not about me.”


Okay, I have to digress for a second: Mister Terrific, the guy in the picture? One of my favorite superheroes. He’s basically Batman without the trauma or inherited wealth. He’s regularly listed as one of the “top ten most intelligent characters in the DC Universe.” He was in charge of a United Nations spy organization for a while. He has 14 PhDs. And he’s an athiest.

This is Zauriel, an actual angel from Heaven, who was in the Justice League:


I’ll just leave that there.

Anyway, fairness is a major component of justice. By “justice,” I mean both the system, and the organization principles, of the fair distribution of inequalities. By “fair”, I mean mutually acceptable to both parties were their situations reversed. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, talks a great deal about “Justice as Fairness,” and in typical Rawlsian fashion, it’s anything but concise, although it is intuitive once you look at it.

The choice which rational men would make in this hypothetical situation of equal liberty, he writes, determines the principles of justice.

Rawls is anything but concise, so I’ll try to sum up here. The Original Position, from which men negotiate behind a Veil of Ignorance, is a state in which no one knows his or her status. It is assumed that every negotiator knows everything about the world–that is, they are understood to know how the world works and how it interacts with people–but nothing about themselves. Thus, so Rawls proposes, no one would make a law or a theory of justice that benefits one group over another, because no one would know to which group he or she belonged.

Imagine a group of lawmakers proposing a bill to determine the limits of free exercise of religion. We would expect, given human nature, that each lawmaker would try and design the bill in such a way that would benefit his or her faith. But what if no one knew who they were? What if no one knew what their faith was, or if they had one at all? In that case, the lawmakers would try to make the law apply as equally as possible, with no preference to one group or another, simply because they would be unable to tell if it would impact them negatively or positively.

That’s fairness.

A brief word on inequalities: Rawls talks about this quite a bit too, and I don’t want to get into it right now, but for this piece I’ll just stipulate that in any society, resources are limited, and people making rational decisions will attempt to gain as much as they can. It’s more complicated than that, obviously, and I’ll try to address this later, but it’ll go faster if we accept it as a basic premise for now.

A law is an imposition of a limitation or a restriction–you can’t drive that fast, you have to give some of your money to the government. There are always at least two parties affected by the law, one to enforce it and one subject to it. A law is fair if, and only if, the enforcing party would accept being subjected to it. The Revered Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” makes this point with characteristic wisdom and grace:

An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation laws are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality…an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.

So to bring it back to taxes. I said that taxes are an expression of justice, and I mean that in the purest sense. If justice is all about the distribution of inequalities, what’s a better distillation of that than taxation? So the next time you’re thinking about the tax system, ask yourself this: if you had no idea how much money you had, and you had no idea how much money you were going to make, is this the one you would have come up with?

I didn’t think so.


Categories: Dispatch

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. How about copyright? Is it fair for you to use pictures made by others without getting a license?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On a “public pledge letter”, one billionaire wrote: “Rawls proves that charitable giving is the right thing to do from an objectively fair vantage point”.

    You conjured the hypothesis that “justice is all about the distribution of inequalities”. In that case, if that billionaire were to choose to donate his money in an unbalanced way, would that make his action unfair?

    The billionaire possibly has limited cognitive capabilities, so he probably would ignore some relevant fact of the world and by that would increase the relative inequality between two unrelated receivers while still decreasing the overall inequality across the entire population. Would that make him fair or unfair? Should he abstain from donation unless he were 100% sure that his action would be absolutely fair?

    As always, words are tricky, so I could be missing something on my interpretation.


    • Well, I didn’t do a great job of explaining it. For Rawls, it’s almost (or rather, entirely) mathematical. You’ve got some people who are well off, some who aren’t. Now, you know Pareto optimization, right? How perfect efficiency is achieved if you get a distribution where you can’t shift any resources around without making at least one person worse? Well, he takes that and then says that it’s unjust for any person near the top of the distribution chart (he has a lot of charts) to GAIN unless it also causes everyone BELOW him to gain.

      Now, your question raises some interesting points, because it calls into question the point at which the chart starts. You’re saying, in effect, that RIGHT NOW is the Way Things Are Meant To Be and that we should only look at distribution going forward. But that distribution isn’t natural in any way. So that’s something I’m thinking a lot about myself right now.



  1. Medicare for…All? – The Georgia Wonk
  2. Voting Rights, Clarified – The Georgia Wonk
  3. Fairness and the Original Position – The Georgia Wonk

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