Academia Experimental Economist Bart Wilson on the Meaning of "Fair"


Politicians and pundits often use the word "fair" to describe policies they favor.  But what does "fair" really mean?

Chapman University experimental economist Bart Wilson argues that fairness should not be construed as equality of outcome, but as a process in which everyone plays by the rules and honors agreements. When lawmakers obscure the definition of this word, it may result in policy that is ineffective, arbitrary, and fundamentally unfair.  

Approximately 8:52. Interview by Zach Weissmueller and shot by Austin Bragg. Edited by Weissmueller.

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  1. That was great.

  2. Pretty kool. I love this sort of study.

  3. It’s not fair that he gets to use the word “gyp”.

  4. This gets to a discussion we were having last week about the meaning of fairness.

    We have principles like ‘equal justice under law’. But the definition of justice has been undermined by leftists who’s promotion of so-called “social justice” comes are the expense of the classical kind.

    I sometimes think that people from different cultures, especially non-Western cultures have a different idea of what “justice” means.

    As in: To people from a Western liberal tradition, justice means equal treatment of individuals by the law. Not equal results.

    But to many others it seems to mean something like “an eye for an eye” or “you got yours, I got mine”. That is, revenge, or equal division of the spoils. If one tribe is on top for a while, it’s only “just” that the other take a turn on top in exchange. If one person gets rich, it’s only fair for them to distribute their earning among the members of his family or tribe. (Notably, the equal division norm seems to only apply to memebers of the same in-group). This kind of justice also seems to be about about honor codes and respect for the traditional social hierarchy. For an individual to not receive a “fair” share of the spoils of his community, is to disrespect him – an injustice.

    I don’t know that this is actually a cultural thing. It could be a notion promoted by the Marxist left during the cold war to encourage underdeveloped nations to hate developed nations. It’s certainly not confined only to people from non-Western cultures, and plenty of immigrants seems to embrace rule-equality.

    I guess you could say there are two kind of “fairness” operating in how we think of it. One would be rule-equality, and the other would be outcome-equality.

    By one meaning, as long as the rules are the same for everyone, the outcomes are fair, regardless of how unequal they are. By the other, the outcomes can only be fair if they average out across members of different social classes and across time.

    Rule-equality justice may be a fairly recent invention, associated with the development of large cities and diverse multi-cultural societies. Another aspect of the shift from the collective to the individual that allows such socieites to function without internecine warfare.

    1. Liberals think that western society has yet to truly achieve equal justice under the law. Nobody is talking about equal outcomes except paranoid cold warriors such as yourself.


        Yeah, there is so much justice in affirmative action, stimulus, etc. Too much justice, in fact.

      2. P.S. There you go again with your “insults make my arguement better” routine.

      3. Because “equal justice under law” means different laws for people with different amounts of money.

      4. Tony, how exactly do you measure “equal justice” ?

        How do you TELL if it has been acheived or not?

        1. When statistics stop showing that justice is unequal for different groups.

          1. “Nobody is talking about equal outcomes except paranoid cold warriors such as yourself.”

            What are the statistics measuring, if not outcomes?

          2. Oh I’ll admit that justice is unequal in criminal law in certain respects, and maybe so in others.

            But the solution is not to keep tweaking the laws so that you cancel out the effect of prejudice. The the solution is to keep the laws uniform and redouble efforts to enforce them equally.

            And aside from that, it isn’t just about race, or gender, or sexuality. You guys think that too much economic inequality needs to be “corrected” for by subjecting “the rich” to higher tax rates. If that isn’t outcome oriented, what is?

            1. Hazel what’s a fair distribution of wealth? Is it the status quo? That would be remarkable, and it’s unlikely.

              The system is rigged, and not in favor of the poor and working class. Which brings me to what I think is the fundamental flaw in your and libertarian thinking. Wealth status is not like skin color or sexuality. Taxing a richer class more than a poorer one is not unfair or discriminatory. Races may be equal in the eyes of god but everyone agrees that having more wealth means having more freedom.

              1. A fair distribution of wealth is one that results from fair rules. I.e. rule-equality.

                You can enforce the rules more fairly, and make them treat people more equally, but attempting to change the rules to correct for aspects of reality that aren’t created by “the system” (i.e. the luck of being born intelligent), are attempts to rig the system in themselves, and are subject to corruption and abuse and manipulation. You aren’t going to get “equal justice” by tweaking the laws to correct for Nature’s unfairness.

                Wealth status is not like skin color or sexuality. Taxing a richer class more than a poorer one is not unfair or discriminatory.

                Why not? if the law treats two people differently based on ANY reason, including that amount of money they have, that violates “equal justice under law”. You act like race or sexuality are the ONLY things that “equal justice” should apply to.

                And it’s not just wealth either. You support regulations that draw distinctions between people based on their industry or profession, the number of people they employ, and the types of products they make.
                Often those rules make it easier or harder for one business to suceed or another.

                How does the unequal treatment of businesses now violate equal justice?

                Are you going to say that equal treatment by the law should only apply to the criminal code? That the rules of the economic game don’t need to be equal?

                1. Things must be done on a case-by-case basis: reality is too complex for a one-size-fits-all statement.

                  Are libertarians against handicapped parking spots, which “rigs” the system in favor of the handicapped? You could get ticketed if you park there and aren’t handicapped, so the law is clearly different for handicapped people and non-handicapped people.

                  Similarly for taxes based on income, you could frame it another way if you wanted. Instead of the rich paying more taxes because they are richer, you say that everyone gets a one-time tax break to buy the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing. Why should the rich get to abuse this? Example: if the tax rate is 10% for all income up to $10,000, and 20% for all income above $10,000, then a mathematically equivalent way of stating this is that the tax rate is 20% for *all* income, and a one-time rebate of up to $1000 is given to everyone, including the rich. If you want the tax rate to be 10% for someone making $100,000, then you would be saying that *one* person can have rebates equal to *ten* people’s just because they are rich?

                  1. Actually, yes, libertarians do oppose laws mandating that special spots be reserved for handicapped parking.

                    And, yes, the ADA is an example unequal justice. Disabled people simply are “entitled” to more stuff, under the law.

                    Similarly, I’d argue that the entire concept of a “senior” citizen is also a violation of the equal justice principle.

                    If individual businesses freely choose to offer discounts to people over 65, that’s their business. But the law should not *mandate* that businesses offer special prices or accomodations to people based on age, disability, or ANY reason. The law should be completely blind to ALL differences between individuals. Age, sexual orientation, race, the amount of money you have in the bank, the nature of your profession, and everything else.

                    1. I’m unaware of any laws mandating private businesses to offer senior citizens discounts.

                      I suppose if you want to get particularly esoteric, you could argue that the law should treat minors the same as adults.

                      Society has basically constructed a patchwork solution for all these difficult problems, which may not be perfect, but is preferable to any libertarian extreme solution. A toddler is treated differently under the law than an adult, but when you get to your teens then things can get hazy and you can get tried as an adult. As far as I’m aware there is no definite delineation for this. But it’s better than a blanket “everyone should spend x amount of years behind jail, including the toddler”.

                    2. Yes, as we all know, most libertarians are in favor of jailing toddlers.

                    3. It’s hard to tell. Most people don’t know libertarians are against the Civil Rights Act. Most people don’t know libertarians are against handicapped parking. Then when libertarians say that the law should be blind to age as the poster mentioned above, then most people assume tax breaks to the elderly: but given all the other stuff, maybe they are referring to the very young – that the law should be blind to them too, and hence receive the same punishments at adults.

                    4. We’re not against the civil rights act. Some are against just the part that mandates private businesses serve blacks and rights equally.

                      But the ADA goes a step beyond that, since it doesn’t just mandate that businesses serve the handicapped equally, it mandates the provision of special accomodations for the handicapped.

                      And yes, I should have mentioned that I meant no age discrimination for ADULTS. I might make an exception for the mentally retarded or others that aren’t fully mentally competent. Then define the rule in terms of mental competence instead of age.

                    5. So you’re already willing to make exceptions in order to deal with the realities of children and the mentally retarded. It’s a good start.

                      The point of things like making public segregation illegal or handicap parking spots is that if people don’t have equal access to commerce then that itself is a violation of equal civil rights. Much better to tweak things so that access to commerce is as democratic as possible. There is no good reason that competition and choice in commerce should have anything to do with one’s physical traits.

                      Hazel it is possible to be intellectually and morally fulfilled without denying handicapped people their parking spaces, so I don’t understand your need to be as pure as possible about government intervention (but not totally–you still give exceptions for children and the mentally handicapped.)

                    6. Much better to tweak things so that access to commerce is as democratic as possible.

                      Yes, tweak, and tweak, and tweak, and eventually you get this byzantine system of “tweaks” where every individual is subject to a million different “tweaks” that all make them unequal in the eyes of the law. Every time you tweak, you move away from the equal justice principle, and towards a system where people’s rights are determined by their political influence.

                      Much better to tweak things so that access to commerce is as democratic as possible.

                      And it’s possible to give handicapped people parking spaces without making it a federal mandate.

                    7. Hazel I get the impression that your big complaint is the patchwork nature of these things. That kind of contradicts the desire to have a set of rigid first principles and have an ideal society emerge spontaneously from them. Life is messy and unfair. Building a workable society will not be an exercise in purging impurities.

                    8. “So you’re already willing to make exceptions in order to deal with the realities of children and the mentally retarded. It’s a good start.”

                      Establishing a reasonable level of cognitive development is not making an exception, it is making a rule that is easily universalized. Simply put, the universal rule is that every (human?) being of a certain intellectual development is entitled to the rights and responsibilities entitled to all individuals, the underage and mentally retarded do not meet this criterion, hence the differing treatment.

                      “Much better to tweak things so that access to commerce is as democratic as possible.”

                      (Disclaimer, I do support the civil rights act) However,
                      This statement is provided without warrant or justification. It also poses a myriad of issues when brought into the context of commerce, oddly conflating the notion of citizens rights to participate in government with the equal appropriation of parking spaces. And we discriminate between mental traits (personality, intelligence, work ethic) in the realms of competition and commerce? We allow free choice in commerce to discriminate against the stupid. Is that less abhorrent than a business not expensive accommodations for the handicapped when it may simply be more profitable for them to lose those customers (imagine a rock climbing gym).

                      Odd that you’re defending those who have trouble walking rather than trouble thinking critically, because that seems to be a more likely demographic for yourself.

                    9. Read Medicare law.

                    10. Read Medicare law.

              2. The only way to have “fair” distribution of wealth, would be to impose a maximum wage, with severe penalties for anyone who manages to amass more than X amount of dollars.

                But, that can’t be done. Not without some serious Constitution-fucking.

                1. Even if it were done, the high earners would just leave the country and the country would go to pot.

                  1. Doc,

                    You mean like what happened in post-communist Russia and other free market “paradises”? At the extreme end of this is mafia-like elites looting the country and if necessary moving out once they’re done. More convenient if you can just move your bank account to the Caymans and still enjoy a good society for yourself, paid for disproportionately by people who aren’t enjoying it as fully.

                    The whole Galt hypothesis–inherently based on a threat–ignores important truths: elite prosperity is temporary if prosperity is confined to the elites, ambitious MBAs are easily replaceable, and relative wealth is more important to the egos of the elites than absolute wealth. They can sacrifice a lot more, as long as everyone else is, and be just as happy. The bonus is a more robust and secure middle class customer base.

                    1. Post-communist Russia did not have an system of “equal justice” when it came to commerce.

                      Certain elite’s property rights were protected more than the rest of society. Property rights protect the middle class and poor. Russia did not have them.

          3. So, it’s wrong for brownish people to be poor… but not white folks?

      5. Liberals think that western society has yet to truly achieve equal justice under the law.

        This is correct. And these same liberals often point to unequal outcomes as “proof” of the lack of equal justice.

        Minorities are, in general, poorer than their white counterparts, therefore, we must not have equal justice.

        1. It’s certainly a good guess. As I see it there are only two explanations for the disparities: an inherent flaw in one group or a systemic misallocation of justice based on historic and current prejudices. You could say the government has responsibility for that misallocation, but I fail to see how the free market would do any better.

          1. As I see it there are only two explanations for the disparities: an inherent flaw in one group or a systemic misallocation of justice based on historic and current prejudices.

            Flaws can be socio-cultural, not inherent.

    2. It is a cultural thing. The key difference, in my opinion, would be if a culture views the world as a zero sum game. Anthropologists call it limited good. One can only get ahead by stealing from someone else. The best outcome would be maintaining the status quo.

      I would attribute the shift away from limited good and equality of outcome justice to rule equality to a widespread rapid increase in quality of living. If your family has been barely scraping a living off of the same patch of land for generations, the idea of limited good is easy to come to. If something like the industrial revolution occurs, it would be hard continue to hold to limited good when everyone’s life is drastically improving.

    3. Originally fairness=justice, but now many consider fairness to include equalitarianism, “social justice” and whatever else they may believe in. There is nothing fair about a minimum or a maximum wage, but many think there should be a minimum wage or that it should be increased because they would like low-wage earners to make more. That however has nothing to do with justice. Fair is a word cheaply thrown around for emotional appeal, with no need to explain why it is fair. It just is!

    4. It’s one thing to have equal laws, but what about equal starting conditions?

      Are both not needed to have equity?

      Who turns down any starting advantage that they can get (absolution from blessings of parent)?

      Who rejects any starting disadvantage imposed on them (absolution from sins of parent)?

      1. How can any society possibly ensure “equal starting conditions”?

        Answer: It cannot be done. Ever.

        1. Then all the more reason to compensate by tinkering with the law. If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine, but then you can’t really claim equity.

          While I agree that completely equal starting conditions is a fantasy, you can take actions to chip away at it: the federal free-lunch program, or the estate tax, tax breaks for charitable donations.

          1. We’ve DONE all that, and more. And we still don’t have this parity fantasy that will never come true, anyway.

            IMO, the more we try to micromanage human existence, the worse things get.

          2. The more you tinker with the law to try to ensure “fair” starting conditions the more you make tools that allow some to tinker with it to make it as “unfair” as possible.

            1. Exactly.

              The progressives want to tweak the laws to make starting conditions more equaly, but they measure it by outcomes – say, the likelihood that someone will end up in the upper tax bracket should be uncorrelated with the starting tax bracket.

              But the democratic process, which is presumably what will be used to do the tweaking, is not an inherently “equal” process. It is a winner-take-all process. So the “tweaks” will tend to be biased toward the politically well-organized and influential.

              It’s important to remember that while “one person one vote” might be a fair way of electing leaders, it is hardly a guarentee that the outcome of the *legislative* process will be equitable or fair.

  5. Good video, but distracting music.

  6. I couldn’t tell if the person was a philologist, a sociologist, or a psychologist, and never would have guessed he was an economist.

    1. Was he even trying to make an economic point?

      Or was this a political point?

      Makes you tend to distrust economists.

  7. “Fair” is for little girls on the playground.

    Not surprisingly, Will Wilkinson values it quite highly as well.

    1. Did you watch the video? If so and this is your comment you are an idiot. And that’s a FAIR assessment.

      1. Blow me kilroy.

        But what does “fair” really mean?

        How it is commonly used.By politicians and little whiny girls on the playground.
        “Fairness”, as it was originally understood, is inherently “unfair” by the current accepted definition.

  8. I like this video, the spacey music was a nice added quality. I have a problem with the whole idea of fairness, in the progressive sense, being the ultimate end for policy as it implies some sort of desert. I see hubris in any idea of deserve and I believe no one has a right to say something they have they deserved or something they don’t have they deserve. You deserve nothing but what someone else is willing to give you.

    1. Deserve is what separates us from animals.

      It is why there is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that all men are created equal.

      Deserve is in the human lexicon. Saying that you deserve nothing but what someone else is willing to give you essentially removes it from the lexicon, and is especially impractical in a world where we are all interdependent due to specialization.

  9. But the prof. himself is a super-proposer. The participants in the study have to ask themselves, “Why should we play this game at all for so little money?”

    1. Or they could ask … “Aren’t the rules of the ultimatum game kind of unfair? “

  10. “Social context.”

    Something libertarians proudly ignore in favor of first principles that reward themselves for simplicity. Yeah, societies differ in time and place. That to me isn’t a statement about whether government should do something, but that government should be flexible. Local governments are best suited to deal with local issues, but the totality of a nation-state has interests as well. Government is part of the social context, it’s the means by which societies manage themselves. Any given community will have a vague but workable consensus on what is fair on a particular issue, but that doesn’t mean that fairness will organically emerge. Take a democratic vote of the society of a sweatshop and see what is considered fair and what is reality. Government, therefore, can be a tool in attaining it.

    1. Here, poor person… have some electronic money on this EBT card.

      What? That’s not enough? Well, okay, we’ll pay for your housing in this, er, lovely apartment building.

      Oh, you want transportation? Well, we can’t buy you a car, but… what? You’re “entitled” to it? Let me check, I’m not up on that program…

      Don’t you have a job? What’s that? Allergic to french fries? Oh, good, that may qualify you as being handicapped!

    2. Tony, it doesn’t matter if the emergence is “organic” or otherwise… it will never happen.

      How long, now, have we thrown billions of dollars a year at this problem? And what are the results?

      1. TLG, just because something can never be achieved totally doesn’t mean not trying is the best solution.

  11. Government is part of the social context, it’s the means by which societies manage destroy themselves.

  12. He is truly a cunning linguist!

  13. Except, by choosing the questions on the “quiz”, Professor Wilson is acting as a government. A powerful entity sets the rules of the game for others. Perhaps a redesign of the experiment would be to allow the participants to decide the questions on the “quiz”. Meritocracy is difficult to establish, and easy to corrupt…just like…markets…just like…governments.

    1. I think an interesting twist ot the experiment would be to ask participants which set of rules they consider more “fair” – the one where the dictator is selected by the quiz, or one where it is random.

      Then try on where the dictators get selected by a popular vote of the whole group. Then run the experiments again, and see if people are more willing to accept unequal divisions. Then ask them if the voting system was fair.

      1. FYI – a similar story over at The Economist:

  14. In the education world we debated fairness as meaning either:
    1. Everyone gets treated the same.
    2. Each person gets what they need.
    Who chose which showed a great deal about attitudes and even politics.

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