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University of Rochester

By Steven Landsburg '74 (MA)

oam Chomsky says that children are born with the universal rules of grammar hard-wired into their brains. According to Chomsky, a child learns to speak by translating those universal rules into the rules of a specific language. That theory might be controversial among Chomsky's fellow linguists, but it makes good sense to me. I believe, for example, that every infant brain contains some universal version of the phrase "That's not fair!" just waiting to be translated into whatever language the parents can understand.

Children know unfairness when they see it, and can be relied upon to call it to your attention. Economists, by contrast, believe that fairness and unfairness are subtle and elusive concepts, hard to define and harder to recognize.

An economist, author, and commentator on the applications of economic theory to everyday life, Steven Landsburg '74 (MA) writes the popular "Everyday Economics" column in the online magazine Slate. He has also written a series of columns for Forbes magazine and two economics textbooks in addition to a 1993 book on popular economics, The Armchair Economist. Visiting associate professor of economics at Rochester, he holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and has taught at Chicago, the University of Iowa, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life, from which this Review article is excerpted, is based on conversations with his 10-year-old daughter, Cayley, who, Landsburg admits, does not agree with everything her father says.

Thus we have a subfield of economics called "axiomatic bargaining theory," which is devoted to figuring out what fairness is. The research strategy goes something like this: First propose a precise formal definition of fairness (usually in the language of mathematics). Next concoct some highly stylized scenarios ("suppose that Jack has two apples and three oranges, while Jill has three apples and two oranges . . ."), and figure out whether they are fair or unfair according to your formal definition. Then try to gauge how well those judgments jibe with the intuitive notions of fairness that we all grew up with. Now repeat with a different precise formal definition of fairness, and see if it does any better.

If they could penetrate the language, toddlers would feel right at home with axiomatic bargaining theory. That's because formal definitions of fairness almost always assign a central role to the principle of symmetry--the requirement that people in analogous situations should be treated analogously. It's that symmetry principle that makes children cry foul when somebody else gets a bigger piece of cake.

Children and economists share an intense fascination with fairness that would be unbecoming in a normal adult. Fascination breeds philosophy--the naive philosophy of childhood and the sophisticated philosophy of the economics journals. What's striking is that the naive child and the sophisticated economist manage to agree on the fundamental observation that fairness is primarily about symmetry.

As we develop from children into adults--I'm thinking here of ordinary, non-economist adults--our attitudes toward fairness evolve in at least two ways. First, we discover that fairness is not the only thing that matters. It's unfair that sick children have to stay home and miss the baseball game--but it's nevertheless a good idea to keep them home. By the time we're grown, we understand perfectly well that fairness must often give way to efficiency or expedience. The child measures the cake and cries, "That's not fair!"; the parent, with equanimity, asks, "What makes you think I'm trying to be fair?"

The recognition that there's more to life than fairness is surely a sign of healthy maturity. But along with that maturity there often comes another, more insidious, evolution in how we think about fairness: It's easy to lose sight of the crucial symmetry principle.

Let me illustrate with one of those stylized examples economists love so much. Mary owns a vacant apartment; Joe is looking for a place to live. If Joe disapproves of Mary's race or religion or lifestyle, he is free to shop elsewhere. But if Mary disapproves of Joe's race or religion or certain aspects of his lifestyle, the law requires her to swallow her misgivings and rent the apartment to Joe.

Or: Bert wants to hire an office manager and Ernie wants to manage an office. The law allows Ernie to refuse any job for any reason. If he doesn't like Albanians, he doesn't have to work for one. Bert is held to a higher standard: If he lets it be known that no Albanians need apply, he'd better have a damned good lawyer.

These asymmetries grate against the most fundamental requirement of fairness--that people should be treated equally, in the sense that their rights and responsibilities should not change because of irrelevant external circumstances. Mary and Joe--or Bert and Ernie--are looking to enter two sides of one business relationship. Why should they have asymmetric duties under the antidiscrimination laws?

When the law is so glaringly asymmetric, one has to suspect that the legislature's true agenda is not to combat discrimination on the basis of race, but to foster discrimination on the basis of social status. By holding employers and landlords to a higher standard than employees and tenants, the lawmakers reveal their underlying animus toward employers and landlords.

We've heard a lot--and I suspect more than enough (in the sense that nobody any longer has anything new to say on this subject)--about reverse discrimination, where the law distinguishes unfairly between blacks and whites. But we've heard far too little about sideways discrimination, where the law distinguishes unfairly between, say, landlords and tenants.

Here's why I call this phenomenon "sideways discrimination." Landlords, like tenants, come in all colors. Every box in this diagram is occupied:

Black landlords Black tenants
White landlordsWhite tenants

Reverse discrimination means that your rights depend on your race (that is, on whether you're in the top row or the bottom). Sideways discrimination means that your rights depend on your social status (that is, on whether you're in the left column or the right).

There are two good reasons to be concerned about sideways discrimination. One is principled: Asymmetric burdens are unfair. The second is practical: A system that restricts your neighbors' freedom today can expand to restrict your own freedom tomorrow. Today, the authorities tell Mary how to choose her tenants; tomorrow they could tell Joe how to choose an apartment. Today they tell Bert how to choose an office manager; tomorrow they could tell Ernie how to choose a job. If Ernie rejects a job offer from a black employer, he'll have to prove that his decision was not based on race.

And why stop there? If the principles of affirmative action are applied consistently, they will eventually govern every aspect of the housing market, the job market, and for that matter the marriage market. In that surreal future, it will be illegal to consider ethnicity in your choice of lovers. Justice Department statisticians will scrutinize your dating patterns to make sure you're sampling a reasonable cross-section of the community. When you finally settle down, you'll have to prove that the spouse you chose is objectively more qualified than any other applicant. Once the system is in place, it can be expanded to cover gender as well as ethnicity: Mary will be hauled into court for marrying a man when a more experienced woman was available.

If that vision sounds implausible, remember that affirmative action in its present form would have seemed equally implausible not so many years ago. If it sounds like a nightmare, remember that it's already a nightmare come true for Mary and Bert.

I want to reflect for a moment on why the extended nightmare vision seems both so implausible and so grotesque. Probably it seems implausible because we anticipate that tenants (or employees or lovers), if forced to live up to the same standards as landlords, would rebel at the ballot box. Sideways discrimination thrives most successfully when it's directed at a small minority--like landlords. In other words, most of us don't stop to think about sideways discrimination because we figure it's someone else's problem.

The world has been down similar paths before. Pastor Martin Niemoller, after eight and a half years in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote these words:

They came first for the Communists, but I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, but I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, but I did not speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by then there was nobody left to speak up.

Mary the landlord might well thank God every day for the gracious good fortune that spared her from the horrors of living in Pastor Niemoller's time and place. But she has this much in common with those the pastor spoke of: Her countrymen are largely oblivious or indifferent to the fact that her freedom has been abridged. The average Joe gives little thought to the fact Mary is denied the rights he takes for granted. Maybe that's because Joe is not a landlord.

Why do we recoil from imposing the burdens of affirmative action on Joe and his fellow apartment hunters or Ernie and his fellow job seekers? I think it's because we recognize that Joe and Ernie have a right to live according to their values, and that we cannot respect that right without allowing them to exercise it in ways we don't like--even when they are motivated by intolerance or bigotry. But if Joe and Ernie have that right, then so does Mary. And if Mary is deprived of her rights, then it's incumbent on Joe and Ernie to speak up for her.

Let me be very blunt about this: Affirmative action has been called unfair to white male job applicants, unfair to business owners who are innocent but presumed guilty of discrimination, and unfair even to its own intended beneficiaries. All or any part of that might or might not be correct, but none of it has anything to do with the issue I'm trying to raise. I am arguing that affirmative action is unfair to bigots, and that even bigots have a right to be treated fairly.

You and I disapprove of bigotry. But the private virtue of tolerance and the public virtue of pluralism require us to countenance things we do not approve. Tolerance means accepting the fact that other people's values might be very different from your own. Pluralism means eschewing the use of political power as a means for "correcting" those values.

The idea of tolerating intolerance sounds suspiciously paradoxical, but so do a lot of other good ideas--like freedom of speech for advocates of censorship. In fact, freedom of speech has a lot in common with tolerance: Neither of them means a thing unless it applies equally to those we applaud and those who offend us most viscerally.

Tolerance is ennobling, which is why we should teach it to our children. Pluralism is insurance against tyranny, which is why we should demand it of our government. To speak up for even the most despised minorities is both morally right and politically prudent.

And lest you imagine that intolerance can be limited easily to minorities (like bigots) who are exceptionally unsavory, reread the quote from Pastor Niemoller, notice whom the Nazis picked on first, and remember that it didn't stop there.

From Fair Play by Steven E. Landsburg. Copyright © 1997 by Steven Landsburg. Reprinted by permission of The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Steven Landsburg is visiting associate professor of economics.

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Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 3--Spring-Summer 1998
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester
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