What are the fairness buttons?
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.”