Let them eat cake – thoughts on fairness and justice

This week on Afternoon Tea we are exploring questions about fairness and justice. In our first slot of the week, we talked about the difference between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. I suggested that we might represent this simply by thinking in terms of sharing out a cake (because I like cake). Imagine that you have a cake to share between five kids. You have the following options

  1. That you simply put down the cake, shout “Here it is” and which ever kid gets there quickest gets the lot.  That’s probably closest to our idea of a purist free market scenario. It also may be presented as giving equality of opportunity but in fact it may not end up being that fair. Some of the children may be further away when the cake is put down and some may be taller, fitter, stronger. Should they therefore get the cake?
  2. That you put the cake down and then you allow the children to go and take as much cake as they want to and are able to but you do things to remove inequalities of opportunities.  At a minimum you ensure that the children are all an equal distance away. However, some people might argue that the shorter child is at an unfair disadvantage so, you may allow them to stand a little closer to give them a chance of getting there.
  3. That you cut the cake up equally and then share it out with each child getting the same amount of cake. This is an example of equality of outcome.  This represents a pure communist system.

So, which of these is fair and which works best?  Well, to some extent the question of “which is fairest” depends on the further question “what exactly are you trying to do.”  The normal illustration describes a 100 metre sprint. I changed it to eating cake not just because I like cake but because the race illustration suggests that we are primarily in a competition. But are we in a competition? Imagine if I swapped out cake for a loaf of bread, imagine if I clarified that the children were not at a party or Sunday club but had been going hungry for weeks.  If we think of providing food, homes, healthcare, an education as things we compete for then talking about equality of opportunity seems like the fairest way to do things. If we think about these things as essentials then we may prefer equality of outcome.

However, now let me take things a little bit further. Suppose that the cake would actually serve ten children easily? The cake is divided into 10 equal slices. Each child takes a slice. One child takes the 5 left over slices and goes out onto the street and sells them  With the money he makes, he is able to go and buy two more cakes which he brings back. Each child gets an extra two slices and the budding entrepreneur now has 10 more slices of cake to sell.  A business is born and we have a slightly more accurate image of the capitalism/free market approach. Is that fair? Each child after all gets the basic provision of cake and more. The entrepreneur is rewarded for their skill and work.  At this stage, no-one appears to be losing out and indeed everyone seems to be gaining. There is inequality to how much each child gains and so this raises the next set of questions. Are we only interested in providing the basics? Or is it okay for people to enjoy additional luxuries? Must we always enjoy exactly the same level both of essentials and the luxuries and how do we decide what is a basic need and what is an additional luxury. 

The Free Market advocates at this point will also want to add that now the children are being given a choice of cake. If the cake is just shared out equally between them, then they can only eat the one type of cake. What if a child doesn’t like fruit cake yet that is all they are given?  Now we can start to add in different flavours. Further, if you only get to eat the slice of cake selected for you then then provider has a monopoly.  There is no pressure on them to improve the quality of the cake they are providing.  This also suggests that the different cakes may start to have different values.  Two slices of fruit cake may be considered worth one slice of Black Forest Gâteau. The children can start trading cake among each other to get what they prefer.

However, what if problems start to happen? What if some children get greedy? What if they start to exploit each other? What if they quarrel over value?  A this point, you are probably thinking that the children should have just sat back and enjoyed their cake and not over complicated things but of course it is just a very simplistic example to help us think about the bigger question of economics.

Leaving behind the cake example and talking directly about he economic policy options that governments make, we see that there are other questions to answer. One question is about how you ensure that the system is just, that people keep to agreements and that the vulnerable are not exploited. The second concern is about what actually works. 

Here is our dilemma when making political choices.  First of all, exploitation and injustice seems to happen both in communist and free-market systems.  You may be familiar with the expression from Animal Farm that “some are more equal than others.” Communist regimes often seem to end up with an elite who can do what they want. Free Markets also see their fair share of exploitation.  Secondly, there is the question of “what works.” Each approach will have its advocates and if you point to the failings of a communist state or the experience in western capitalism of regular recessions then the answer always comes back “ah but that wasn’t a pure version of the approach. If only someone would try pure undiluted communism or capitalism then they would see that it works.

Now, here’s the point. The system is actually only as good as the people in it.  We talk about the state regulating things or the free marker determining things but both of these are really abstract concepts it is actually people who regulate and make choices. If we see an abstract entity as setting the rules and making the decisions then we are setting it over us and giving it omnipotence and authority. In other words, we start to make either the state or the free market into an idols.

Additionally, because the system is only as good as people, we begin to realise that the system itself does not exploit. People do. The reason we have exploitation is because of the problem of the human condition. It is caused by sin and specifically by greed.

This is why it is unwise to put your trust into an economic system or political theory. As Christians we want to say two things. First of all that only God can truly decide justly and fairly. Secondly that our greatest need is not for the perfect system but to have our hearts changed to love God and to love our neighbour.

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