is life fair?

Can citizens in western societies strive for wealth at the same time society tries to be ‘fair’? Let me give you a few situations, and in each case think whether society is being ‘fair.’  Fair is a loaded word, but just assume for the time being it means that all people have equal outcomes for similar actions.

  1. A college graduate, well-educated about personal finance and the economy, decides to burn through everything they earn right now, saying “Why save for later? I’ll have fun now and hell with consequences.” Should society be responsible for his medical care and living expenses when he is 70 and can no longer work or care for himself adequately?  If someone chooses to smoke and doesn’t insure himself, does society owe him health care?
  2. A child is born with 50 different health problems (heart, congenital diseases, you name it). The cost of keeping that child alive is monumental, exceeding even the most generous insurance benefits. The cost of keeping that child alive cripples not only the family but put a strain on the local doctors, etc. who effectively donate their time to treat her. What if the cost of keeping that child alive until she’s 25 will be astronomical, and that cost could immunize or treat hundreds or thousands of children who need it? What obligation does society have to help this child at the expense of others?
  3. Taxes on earned income in America (wages, etc.) are significantly higher for the middle class than for someone in the lower class (more than 40 percent of the US population pays no income taxes). Many people feel that is unfair (depending on your political and economic perspective). However, someone who lives off earnings from investments may pay 15% or less on their earnings, significantly less than a middle-class married couple who work as employees. Is it fair that employees – most of the middle class – pay a disproportionate share? And would it be fair to tax investors (“the rich”) more, but not tax the poor and middle class more?

Those are just a few examples of how a wealth-building society can be unfair. You have your own reactions to the scenarios above. Here are mine:

  1. I detest this attitude. His attitude will take money out of my pocket when he is older. But in western society, particularly in the US, the care and treatment of the elderly, the ill and those simply unfit to care for themselves  are often left to the state. Should we have means testing for these people? “You didn’t get a decent job with good health insurance and keep your health up in your younger years, so to hell with you now that you’re old and have heart trouble? Live on the street because you didn’t save up.”  As much as we might growl that in a moment of anger, I doubt anyone is prepared to see these people sleeping on the streets.
  2. I knew a child like this. She was a lovely, happy and intelligent child who suffered from an incurable genetic condition that meant her chances of living to be a teenager – much less an adult – were minimal. I knew her years and years ago and I have no idea what happened to her. The logical line to take would be to say “no, society has to follow the principles of the herd and Darwin and the devil take the hindmost” or “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” but unless you are a serial killer, devoid of emotion, it is impossible to meet children like her and not imagine society moving heaven and earth to care for her. Even if the chances of her living to be an adult are slim, she deserves her chance at whatever life she can have. My higher insurance premiums that may have resulted from that? Please.
  3. I am routinely infuriated by taxes. I am, however, not an adherent to the “no taxes” philosophy; a society that provides public services like police, postal services, libraries and a military has to raise revenues. They may not be spent wisely, but I can’t throw out the $800 screwdrivers with the public libraries – there will be good and bad. But I do realize that the unfairness in the system – the loopholes, the imbalance in taxation which favors investing income over wage income – may not benefit me now but it will when I am financially free. I plan to be one of the people living off my investments, earning no wage income and avoiding my fair share of taxes. So if I want to build wealth, why should I rail against this system? I intend for it to benefit me in the end. So I throw myself into battle against my 1040 again this year, struggling forward in anticipation of crossing the financial finish line. If I finish it – against the relatively daunting odds, considering I have no singing talent, ball-shooting ability or parents named Hilton – will I become a “raise my taxes to even things out activist”? Er, no.

Fairness is an overused (and misused) word. There is no fairness in a free, capitalist society, nor – when you stop to consider it – does anyone want complete fairness. Inequalities in the system are what allow wealth to be built, or care to be given to the exceptional, or even to allow for the occasional idiot. A fair society would not allow elderly poverty, but it would not allow for financial freedom, either – it would demand equality of outcomes. It would not have plastic surgery for starlets, but it would also not have medical treatment for children dying of expensive incurable diseases. A fair society would increase the burden of taxation on everyone without increasing benefits for the most needy. Human society being what it is, the concept of fairness will always remain just that – a concept. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

photo by Clearly Ambiguous