Initial Endowments and Fairness

Fairness is a vague term that is usually applied subjectively in political analyses. From a democratic standpoint, fairness has to do with how power and privilege is distributed in a society; a fair politic would be one in which each and every person has access to individual representation, mobility, and protection from physical or political abuse. From an economic standpoint within a democratic society, fairness relates to the ways that resources are distributed among individuals, accessibility to those resources, and how those resources became available for trade or ownership in the first place.

The simplest way to frame fairness as it relates to resources the way wealth is distributed in a democratic politic like the United States. In a country where an extremely small percentage of the population hold an enormous amount of the aggregate wealth, and where more children live in poverty than any other country in the industrialized world, one could argue that wealth distribution looks a lot more like wealth disparity. However, one’s judgment of fairness will likely depend on one’s political identity. Conservatives (or as they are sometimes derisively called, “neoliberals”,) will argue that economic fairness will be a default consequence of a total free market system. That is, free market devotees will argue that wealth distribution will always be unequal, but that the ideal free market system will create a large middle class and less disparity due to economic competition and open access to the market. Fairness, in this sense, comes from one’s participation in the market, so that any individual will get his or her “fair share” as long as they play a fair game.

On the other hand, liberals (or as they are sometimes derisively called, “snowflakes”,) will argue that fairness is a myth in our society due to a variety of social and political reasons, such as discrimination, the patriarchy, consumerist culture, etc. Fairness can and should be achieved via government intervention. From this perspective, fairness is more of a social and economic equalization by means of regulation and possibly force. A fair world would be one in which the market does not completely decide an individual’s standing in society; in fact, that function of the free market is itself unfair.

Regardless of these partisan attitudes, most people agree that those born with initial endowments of inherited wealth challenge efforts to achieve economic fairness in a democracy. Uber successful businessmen from the 19th century had benefited from short cuts around or flagrant crimes against the then-nascent free market system. Even an anarcho-capitalist who has a first edition copy of The Wealth of Nations will concede that the heirs of these questionably compounded treasures will have an unfair advantage in gaining access and power in the market, thus upsetting the apparent algorithm set to solve for equity. Those on the other end of the political spectrum may say that certain populations in America deserve an economic back-pay for slave labor performed by their ancestors, to be distributed in the form of reparations, and that those who have benefited from that free labor hinder any possibility of economic fairness. Even in minor cases, initial endowments play a huge role in changing the economic game, and make competing with already established “big players” almost impossible for many Americans who start out on the lower rungs of the economic la


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