What's Fair?

In a fascinating guest spot over at The Atlantic’s new Brave New Deal blog, my friend Bart Wilson — an actual economic scientist — digs deep into the question of the meaning of a “fair” distribution in the experimental economic games he studies. Drawing on the work of linguist Anna Wierzbicka, Bart reports that the English word ‘fair’ doesn’t really translate one-to-one into any other language. I did not know that! And he argues that fairness judgments are made relative to an implicit or explicit set of customary rules: 

No matter how much we may feel that fairness is a pure principle, it’s really a regular social rule, a custom.   (Another surprispingly revealing word:  you have probably seen the words “customary rates” applied to gratuities and sales commissions).  Fairness really boils down to an issue of agreement: can we agree on what rules this particular context calls for? In a future post, I’ll expand on what this means for markets and public policy.

Remember, Bart’s not riffing from the armchair. He’s run a mindnumbing number of experimental games meant to elicit judgments of fair distribution. If he’s right, this is pretty interesting. One thing it seems to me to  imply is that a “theory of justice” built on intuitions about fairness is likely to be pretty conservative, echoing the conventional rules underlying fairness judgments, and at best ironing out their inconsistencies. Whether that’s a feature or a bug depends on what kind of work you would like a theory of justice to be do. 

Anyway, Bart’s work is an outstanding example of what economics looks like when it is also science.