Monday, 17 November 2008

Two very dangerous words

Mark J. Perry blogs at Carpe Diem on Two Very Dangerous Words: "Fair" and "Fairness". He writes,
In "The Armchair Economist," economist Steven E. Landsburg posed the following:

"Suppose that Jack and Jill draw equal amounts of water from a community well. Jack's income is $10,000, of which he is taxed 10%, or $1,000, to support the well. Jill's income is $100,000, of which she is taxed 5%, or $5,000, to support the well. In which direction is the policy unfair?"

An honest person will admit that this question has no indisputably right answer. Prof. Landsburg then asked "If I can't tell what's fair in a world of two people and one well, how can I tell what's fair in a country with 250 million people and tens of thousands of government services?"

HT: Don Boudreaux

The words "fair" and "fairness" are two of the most dangerous words in the English language, for the following reasons:

1. People using those words (e.g. "fair trade," "fair wages") almost always follow with some proposal for government intervention, government regulation, or government force of some kind to correct some perceived "unfairness" and impose their notion of "fairness."

And to paraphrase Thomas Sowell:

2. In most cases, it is hopeless to try to have a rational discussion with those who use the words "fair" and "fairness."

3. "Fair" and "fairness" are two words that can mean virtually anything to anybody.

4. "Fair" and "fairness" are two of the most emotionally powerful words, but at the same time are words that are undefined (see #3).
In many policy discussions the words "fair" and "fairness" appear and it would be nice if the people using them defined exactly what they meant by them before using them. It is impossible to know whether something is "fair" when we don't know what "fair" is.

A friend from Helengrad St Johnnysburg just emailed me to point out that Roger Kerr gave a speech on the uses and misuses of language and the uses of words to mean whatever the user wants them to mean back in 2003. For Kerr the worry was The "We" Word.
But my deeper point is that this ambiguity of 'we' can lead us into collective thinking and coercive action where it isn't necessary. Political rhetoric is full of phrases like 'we as a nation must decide whether we want a national airline/film industry/manufacturing sector/whatever'. This assumes that 'we' have to make a single, collective decision as voters, whereas in reality 'we' as individuals are making that decision every day. If consumers prefer a domestically manufactured product to an imported one, a domestic manufacturing industry or firm will be there to meet the demand; if they prefer the imported product it won't. The demand that 'we as a nation must decide' is to call on people to decide through the political system things that they can readily resolve as individual consumers.


Matt Nolan said...

Very true - damned subjective terms

Paul Walker said...

"Very true - damned subjective terms"

Hey, that's unfair!!!

Heterosexual middle class white male said...

Helengrad has recently been renamed St Johnnysburg.

Paul Walker said...

But when officially does the change over take place? Is it St Johnnysburg yet?

Heterosexual middle class white male said...

David Farrar's column in the NBR has changed name.

Paul Walker said...

Ok name has been changed!