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

17 comments

  • The concept of fair is like the idea of balance. It’s something that we should strive for, but not be too disappointed if we don’t actually achieve it. Maybe it’s OK to just try to remain as close to it as we can.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article!

  • Excellent and thought provoking article. We tend to base arguments on class our current status forgetting benefits we may foresee in the future or which we enjoyed when younger.

    A democracy only works, however, when those who enjoy benefits consider those who do not. We seem to be migrating as citizens into a selfish mindset that only wants to enact or change laws that directly benefit our pockets. Self-interest is human nature, but if the older generation neglects the younger, those with jobs blame those without, and children of the wealthy receive enjoy abundant education while others struggle in dilapidated buildings, the future of democratic equity in our country is tenuous.

  • Your closing paragraph is excellent. And it is true, a democracy isn't always fair, however it does give everyone a chance and what they do with their chance varies highly from person to person. I would rather have opportunity than forced “fairness.” But don't worry, if Obama has anything to do about it, it will ALL be fair soon enough – it will no longer be a “concept”….lucky us (that is sarcasm).

  • Clearly you don't have an Irish mother and grandmother or you would have had “Life's not fair!” drilled into you by the time you could walk.

    I'm with you on your three examples (well without the detest and infuriated bits, accept with serenity things that can't be changed and all that) but find the smaller, closer to home examples a bit more interesting – just from my own life the guy down the street who only works nixers, the immigrant who told several white lies on paperwork to give his/her family a better life, the person doing the sponsored CN tower climb who finagles his way out of the mandatory charity donation, the kid who follows you through the turnstile when you swipe your subway card, the cab driver in the poor country who rips you off because you're a tourist but we're talking a couple bucks, and so on.

  • When you say, “there is no fairness in a free, capitalist society” I would agree but I would also want to expand this thought. There is no fairness in life, not just in a capitalist society. Take your second example. This little child does not have the same chances another child has, neither do her parents who will lovingly carry the burden of taking care of her. All this happens irrespective of the political or economic system in which this child is born.

  • Life is not fair. Half the world gets buy on less than $1000 a year. Living in USA puts us ahead of the curve.

  • Wow…you totally opened my eyes with the 15% rate…I've known about it, but two and two never clicked for me.

    It's definitely a goal to look forward to…

  • Good post! I wrote a tax post today which annoys me.

    I think everything is rational, and life is pretty fair. If you want to be rich, you'll work hard and figure it out. If not, no big deal and chill!

  • Excellent analysis. Life is not always fair or objective.

    And I never knew about the 15% figure on investments, not that I would have to worry about that in the forseeable future!

    If you think about it though, that 15% is probably amounting to more dollars for the govt than the 25-28% the middle class pays.

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  • I beg to differ on this whole life is not fair issue and possibly have a too simplistic view of it but here it goes anyway. I believe life is very fair in the fact that all of us have something in our lives that we believe is unfair, so if we are all dealing with some sort of unfairness doesn't that then mean we are all being treated fairly by life…

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