I just published an essay in the New York Times titled “How to Get the Rich to Share the Marbles.” The main point of the essay is that there are several fairness buttons in the human mind, but equality of outcomes is not one of them. This is why arguments about how much the “1%” have, in comparison to the “99%” don’t get much traction. Even showing graphs of rising inequality doesn’t do much for most Americans, because our moral psychology just doesn’t respond to inequality of outcomes in a vacuum. Rather, there are (at least) three fairness buttons that come into play in discussions of taxation, wealth, and inequality:
1) The “Share the Spoils” button. People feel a strong desire to share, even to share equally, when they feel that they have collaborated with others to produce the wealth. If a gross disparity arises because two people worked separately, even if they both worked equally hard and one was just plain lucky, most people don’t feel that they are entitled to a share of the more successful person’s resources. This is the focus of the article, drawing on an important study published last year in Nature by Katharina Hamann and Michael Tomasello. Tomasello is one of the heroes of chapter 9 of The Righteous Mind, for his research on how humans and only humans can do shared, joint projects like the marble sharing.
2) The “Shared Sacrifice” button. Churchill offered Britons nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” John F. Kennedy asked us all to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” against communism. When a leader asks everyone to sacrifice for the common good, it pushes a very powerful button, one that makes rich and poor alike willing to share. (I criticize Obama for not pushing this button in response to the economic crisis, but I should note that George Bush failed to push it in an even more golden opportunity, after 9/11. That would have been an ideal time to get our house in order, to prepare for the long and costly struggle Bush was about to take us on.)
3) The “Procedural Fairness” button. People don’t just care about whether they got a fair slice of the pie. That’s “distributive fairness” (which depends critically on whether they collaborated to make the pie, see button #1). They also care a great deal about whether open, honest, and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what. This is the main problem with fairness in America, in my opinion. This is why I approvingly quoted Sarah Palin’s condemnation of “crony capitalism.”
If the Democrats are going to campaign this year on fairness, they would do well to know where the psychological buttons are, and to stop assuming that most people are concerned by gross inequalities of outcome by themselves. In my research at Yourmorals.org, my colleagues and I find that it’s only people who are already on the far left who agree with the statement “ideally, everyone in society would end up with the same amount of money.”
Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart lost his cool, to put it mildly, against the Occupy protestors outside of the C-PAC convention in Washington, Feb 10 2012. Pete Ditto, my colleague at YourMorals.org, sent me the video clip, along with an insightful analysis of the confrontation as a clash of moral foundations (below).
As Pete explains:
“This is a beautiful demonstration of uncivil politics and the moral foundation clash underlying the culture war. Breitbart yells “behave yourself”. He calls the occupy protestors “freaks and animals” and says they are “filthy” and “raping people.” This seems a great illustration of the Authority/subversion foundation (behave yourself and respect tradition, don’t behave like freaks) blended with the Sanctity/degradation foundation (calling them filthy, animals, and rapists). The protestors in turn go right for the symbolic touchstones of victimization (the Care/harm foundation) and oppression (the Liberty/oppression foundation) chanting “racist, sexist, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away”.
I’m the guest on Bill Moyers’ new show, Moyers and Company, airing on PBS stations Feb 5-7. Check your local PBS stations. Or, just watch the whole episode below, or, better yet, online here. There’s some good additional material on that page, below the main video, including this 3 minute clip on how my time in India, while working with Richard Shweder, helped me to step out of the “matrix.” The producers of the show also created this wonderful feature, to help foster mutual understanding: They asked a well-known blogger from each side to recommend blogs from the OTHER side that they each found helpful and insightful.
Moyers and I talked on camera for about two and a half hours. (He is as lovely, warm, and conversational in real life as he appears on TV. The time flew by.) The producers edited our conversation down to 47 minutes, so there was a lot of material that didn’t make it into the show, including just about every place where I gave credit to my collaborators. So let me at least mention them here:
–My colleagues at YourMorals.org, of whom a picture is flashed up early in the show: Pete Ditto, Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, Sena Koleva, Matt Motyl, and Sean Wojcik.
—Emily Ekins, at UCLA, who took the photos of the Tea Party rally, and who is working with me to study Occupy Wall St.