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{Colorado Springs Gazette, 2013-01-14 18:52:46}

What if we don’t need fairness anymore?

Any parent has heard one of the first sentences out a child’s mouth: “That’s not fair!”. Fairness seems to be inherent in our psychological and emotional makeup. We are viscerally upset by contrasting images of the poor and the rich, by eating well knowing others go hungry, or simply by being treated differently for no reason. A sense of fairness is part of being human.

But if something is a part of who we are, chances are it had an evolutionary purpose. In this case, the best evidence we have from evolutionary psychology is that people with an innate sense of fairness formed more cohesive groups. They hunted better, got along better, fought less over how to chop up the mammoth, and had a survival advantage over those without it. When we were banded together in groups, fighting for our survival on the savannah, fairness served us well.

But what if we no longer need it? What if the fairness impulse is poorly adapted to the modern world? What if, instead of being something noble and good, it’s something that we should fight to overcome? What if fairness put into practice, particular in modern politics, is actually a lousy idea?

This isn’t as strange as it sounds. There are lots of evolutionary traits in force today we would be better off without. Thousands of years ago, our endorphin receptors gave us heightened sensory response when fleeing from danger. Today, they make us vulnerable to synthetic intoxicants that can destroy lives.

We are genetically programmed to seek out, consume, and store fatty foods because thousands of years ago we never knew where our next meal was coming from. In a modern world of wealth and abundance, that makes us obese.

Humans have a well-known preference for people who look, talk and act like themselves. That served us well when we needed to form groups for food finding and protection. Today, that instinct manifests itself in race prejudice, tribalism, nationalism and ethnic cleansing. Hardly something to be enthusiastically embraced as part of our human heritage.

What if the fairness impulse is like that?

By the fairness impulse, I don’t mean the impulse that everyone should play by the rules. Equality under the law is a fundamental cornerstone of civilized society, something that continues to serve us well. Nor do I mean the impulse to compassion. The impulse to ensure that everyone has a safe place to sleep and decent food to eat is better described as empathy, not fairness.

By the fairness impulse, I mean the belief that there is only a limited amount of wealth and it belongs to the tribe: The mammoth has to be cut into equal parts. I mean the desire to reduce a gap in wealth simply because the gap is there. I mean the claim that the nation’s poor should have broadband Internet, because most of society does. I mean the claim that the top 20 percent of a society’s earners should be taxed at (still) higher rates because the gap between them and the bottom 20 percent is “too large”.

Redistributing wealth solely in the name of fairness is a primitive evolutionary trait poorly adapted for the modern world. It’s poorly adapted because, unlike the amount of meat on a mammoth, there is no longer a fixed amount of wealth to divide. The modern world is “positive sum”. It is a world in which wealth is created, a world in which societies get richer over time. Our impulse to fairness wasn’t designed for that. It was designed for a primitive time that has long since passed.

So the next time someone asks you to support something in the name of “fairness”, ask yourself which part of your brain they are trying to reach. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right.


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