How many times have you said that, or felt that, or thought that? Over the years I was told that I was too short for basketball, too light for football, too slow for track, too unsophisticated for the best fraternity, too blind to fly in the Air Force, too outspoken for promotion, etc., etc. Yes, there is always some major or minor deficiency that interferes with progress in our career or in the attainment of the dreams we have as youngsters. Not to mention a lack of wealth, intelligence, “good looks,” and a winning personality.
It ain’t fair! To us average guys and gals the playing field of any game in life seems skewed steeply uphill from whatever plateau we begin. And the difficulty of the inclination becomes exaggerated by others’ prejudices against our race, religion, country of origin, how we speak the native tongue, and the fatness or ugliness of our anatomy.
It’s a tough row to hoe with so many impediments. Not counting those we put there ourselves because of the many frustrations we suffer that release inappropriate and unwanted responses from us. Especially when we encounter the questionable cultural guidelines our predecessors have chosen to judge us. Any disadvantage we perceive in our physical and intellectual make-up we blame for our failure to measure up to those guidelines of acceptability that determine the statistical norm. My hand-eye coordination prevents me from achieving success in sports, my laissez-faire attitude limits my ascension up the organization, and my family problems embarrass me in the neighborhood. If only God or the government or Lady Luck would help me. It ain’t fair that they, and the rest of the world, are all ganging up on me.
Everywhere you go, people are loudly complaining about injustice, unfairness, and inequality. The media, the watchdog organizations, the concerned citizens in our communities are striving to make everyone aware of the inequities, the abuse, the exploitation of some element of society by another. With few realistic solutions to reduce the horrifying, inhumane acts elite groups foist upon our brothers and sisters and with very little money to remedy all the consequences, we cry out in our agony that somebody ought to do something as soon as possible. It just ain’t fair!
At the same time that we are lamenting our individual inadequacies and the blatant injustices we observe around us, we are celebrating the triumphs of someone in business, in competitive sports, in medicine, in literature, or in entertainment. We are cheering for their unusual, brilliant, and often spectacular achievement. Our society rewards the truly enterprising, successful, and outstanding individuals who have exceeded the norm, set new criteria for measuring some achievement, and established higher standards against which everyone will be compared. We hail them as heroes, we worship them as Gods, and we tolerate their foibles as if they were our immediate friends. If only we could trade places with them to enjoy the “perks,” the money, the fame! Alas, we just don’t have what it takes to follow in their footsteps. We were shortchanged at the beginning or during our youth and probably not considered deserving when the talents were handed out.
What would be fair for everyone? To start with the same talents, skills, intelligence, and physical capabilities? Equal financial or political power? An international passport? Or should we be happy with some limited freedom to pursue our own individual happiness as long as we don’t violate society’s rules? Forget a fair distribution of resources, and sharing those “equal” opportunities. These are just propaganda myths to lull the innocent into cooperating with the organizations in power. Social and political leaders would like us to think that they are working diligently toward the communal happiness of the majority of their members, workers or voters. This elusive happiness should be reached when we are satisfied that no one has more advantages or disadvantages than anyone else. When fairness has been decreed and implemented!
Although we ask for evenhandedness from others in their treatment of us, we seldom practice the same evenhandedness in our treatment of them. When we seek justice for ourselves, we are most often looking for some privilege, some benefit, some advantage, or some entitlement that would make our lives easier. When we see others receiving what we feel is an “unfair” advantage, aren’t we silently cursing their luck and hoping to be blessed with that same advantage?
If the umpire’s decision is close, don’t we want to be the favored party? If mercy is ever meted out, aren’t we praying that we will receive that mercy, or at least be included with those who receive it? Don’t we usually want to be blessed with the same head-start that others seem to have? And if we luckily have a head-start in some endeavor, don’t we hope to continue to enjoy that advantage?
No, life isn’t fair. But do we really expect it to be and do we want it to be?! I don’t think so. In a horse race, we certainly don’t expect a dead heat amongst all the participating thoroughbreds. In athletic competition we may honestly desire that the medals and championships are won by deserving athletes, but often we cheer for the home team or for the home-town boy or girl. We may even support less talented participants due to their greater sacrifice in attaining the level of capability necessary to win. Nevertheless, we know there will be many hard-working losers and possibly some undeserving winners.
In business we favor the competitors who provide us the best customer service, even though others may not enjoy the same service as we do. Where the results favor us, we never complain about unfairness. When the officials overlook a player’s violation of a rule on the field that affects the outcome of a close game, we ignore their error if “our” team has benefitted. Justice of a “higher level” has been rendered, and we are happy with the outcome. We might rationalize our cavalier attitude by thinking what goes around comes around-sooner or later. But, you can be sure the losing players are upset, and their fans enraged by the ineptness of the officials in failing to be capable judges and “fair.”
Yes, we want fairness for everyone as long as that doesn’t subtract something from our present hard-won social status. We definitely expect to retain what we have “fairly” gained in life. It pleases us when the tax auditor renders an opinion that we have come by our income legally and paid our taxes without violating any IRS regulations. Yet we know that these regulations favor some taxpayers, maybe even us!
What comes into play here is the criteria of fairness used by the legal profession. Lawyers admit, for example, that their profession is not seeking absolute fairness. Opposing lawyers are supposedly locked in an honorable struggle to insure that “equal justice” be applied to all defendants. Our legislators don’t write laws that guarantee fairness. Someone is always benefitted by legislative action. When a new law benefits someone, it quite likely is subtracting a benefit from someone else. The person who benefits feels that the new legal relationship is more “fair,” while the person losing a benefit feels that the new law is “unfair.”
There is no pleasing everyone under these circumstances. We go about our lives trying to abide by legal arrangements that frequently suffer adjustments in an attempt by legislators to “level the playing field.” But with the diversity of talents, interests, and orientations of so many citizens, anything aimed at being more “fair” only alters the rules of the prevailing social contract. Sooner or later this new legal arrangement creates a disequilibrium of “fairness” – usually when the law of unintended consequences intercedes.
Although we preach otherwise, we have to admit that we are actually anticipating enjoying a relative “fairness.” Our inherited benefits: physical, material, legal, and intellectual, we struggle to retain. As we grow older, the fruits of our labors can produce a financial and material lifestyle beyond the reach of many common folks. Despite taxes aimed at preventing too great a disequilibrium between the rich and the poor, the rich do not become as philanthropic as to reduce their family net worth to the economic level where they began.
Today, after years of following the philosophy of preventing the rich from passing along their wealth to their children through stiff inheritance taxes, Congress has approved legislation to “do away” with this punitive, “double taxation” policy sometime down the road. Those who will be favored are expected to contribute to their representatives’ re-election campaigns. In times of anticipated federal government surpluses, no one is ostensibly hurt by this move. But the playing field is no longer as level (if it ever was) for the poor chap whose parents leave him nothing.
Let’s be fair! We accept fairness that does not undermine our particular interests and present status, if we are happy with them. We advocate more “equality” for those who have less as long as it doesn’t cost us anything. In our dialogues we champion better schools, highways, social services, etc., but at the polls we vote in secret not to approve bond issues and higher taxes to pay for these improvements.
In “good times” business leaders approve benefit increases, bonuses, and salary structure adjustments which add cost to the product. Then, when such cost increases negatively impact the bottom line, these intelligent managers decide to reduce the number of employees to force increased productivity from the remaining crew to offset the increased fringe benefit costs. These decision makers can’t be held responsible for the lesser productive workers dismissed. It’s fair to keep the hard-working and let slackers go, right? It may be politically correct in times of low unemployment and economic prosperity, but it ain’t fair to those who were marginal workers doing their best and trying to learn their jobs.
But, I don’t want to judge anyone. In private it is easy to anoint ourselves judges and condemn unfair treatment. Still, that doesn’t endow us with the power to adjudicate fairness and to “right” the “wrongs” in the world. We say we might like the role of implementing fairness. But without the proper education, the appropriate background, the necessary experience pertinent to the issue at stake, we probably wouldn’t be very good at rendering all those Solomon-wise decisions. Worst of all, having to listen to all the complaints, the gripes, and the lies day in and day out could make your professional life quite unappealing! And that ain’t fair! Unless you became a highly paid celebrity for doing so.
Where do we learn this sense of fairness? Why are we so adamant that we receive fair treatment? Didn’t we accept the logic behind our mother’s rule that applied when two siblings were to share the last piece of cake? Remember that the one who divided the piece would not be the first to choose which of the remaining two pieces he or she could have? Doesn’t that teach us that we can’t be trusted to share evenly or to dispense fairness when we, or our interests, are involved? In those cases where we are granted an opportunity to become judges about some issue that also affects us, our close friends feel we are either taking advantage of this opportunity or foolishly compromising our own interests in order NOT to be unfair. We can’t win here, and should excuse ourselves from participating, but many of us do not, of course.
The result is that we have another confounding paradox to try to resolve. The dilemma is easy to understand, but the solution is particularly thorny. Ethically, we are taught to share what we have with our neighbors and to respect their rights. In the family and a small tribal community this is easier to do and monitor. But in the world setting, we ask the old Biblical question: “Who is my neighbor?” And the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality takes over.
We don’t worry much about all those we don’t see or hear from. We are not concerned about how well off they are or how “fairly” they are being treated. Their “silence,” or better their screams muffled by distance and separation, allows us to ignore any injustice they might be encountering. How do we know what’s happening to them? The various forms of media are always distorting things, selecting unsavory anecdotes to promote their agenda, and sucking up to their advertisers and investors. We can’t trust them, especially when the abuses are disturbing and irresolvable. It ain’t fair, but our lives contain plenty of evidence that we aren’t being treated fairly, either! What little free time we have is spent “bitchin” about the injustices that affect our personal situation.
We can fill our few spare moments by boring others about life’s many inequalities, but it will do very little to improve our day to day quality of life. Better to forget the concept of “fairness” and realize that it is merely a political tactic used to gain the underprivileged vote in any social setting. We will always be surrounded by the “have-a-lots” and the “have-nots.” The have-nots will forever seek sympathy using the cry, “It ain’t fair!” Some of the have-a-lots, remembering their prior disadvantaged situation, will make a half-hearted effort to “throw them a fish.”
Whatever is done by the well-intentioned will begin a reshuffling of the deck being dealt, and a new hierarchy of have-a-lots and have-nots will eventually evolve. Then a new down-trodden segment of society will voice their dissatisfaction about the distribution of wealth and material possessions. And the vicious circle will continue to spin on driven by the philosophy promulgated by Christian and Communist alike: “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.” Isn’t that “fair?”