I am watching the Democrats beat each other up over what happened to their sure-fire win in the presidential election. They blame FBI director James Comey for the eleventh hour email announcement about further investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails as secretary of state, which of course didn’t help. They blame it on poisonous nature of social media, or a surge in racism, or a low turn-out.
But in this most expensive campaign, this election was all about unfairness, and an unfairness ignored, even sanctioned, by many members of the Democratic party.
The soul of any successful society is turn-taking, or reciprocity – a sense of fair play. The moment individuals begin to cluster in a group larger than the nuclear family, they appear to evolve a strong, in-built sense of fairness.
Scientists have always maintained that the human drive for fairness is a moral issue, developed only in human society as a “counter dominance” strategy, to “encourage” — by which they mean “force” — cooperation.
The primal nature of fairness
Nevertheless, it appears that, within any society, a sense of fairness spontaneously evolves as a basic Bond of society. Fairness appears to evolve automatically as an inherent part of working together outside our immediate families. The roots of this impulse appear to run very deep and are primal in many living things – even monkeys, as Frans de Waals and his student Sarah Brosnan discovered.
Brosnan, a Ph.D. at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Living Links Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, devised an ingenious study for capuchin monkeys. This breed is well known for its cooperative behavior and strong social bonds, and capuchin females were chosen for the study because they tend to be monitors of fair treatment.
Brosnan placed pairs next to each other and trained them to hand over a small granite rock in return for a piece of cucumber. This is quite a concession, as animals generally are reluctant to give away anything. As soon as the trade was made, the researchers would then give the partner monkey — who had either carried out the same work or played no active part at all — the same size slice of cucumber, or even a grape, which, to a capuchin, is the far superior reward.
Both the monkeys who had made the original trade and bystanders witnessing the unfair treatment went berserk. They refused to engage further in any way with the humans, would not eat the cucumbers they’d been rewarded, and in some cases hurled the food at the researchers.
This study, which was published in Nature, suggests that a sense of fairness is an intrinsic part of the social Bond of our close relatives. Ernst Fehr from the University of Zurich, an expert on fairness and game theory, believes that the fact that even monkeys reject unequal pay demonstrates that a sense of fairness is “very deeply rooted behavior.”
Like monkeys, people are so resistant to inequity that they are willing to give up their own material pay-off if that will bring about a more equitable outcome for all. In our hearts we’re okay with a smaller piece of cake so long as we know it’s going to mean that everybody else gets a slice.
Fehr himself discovered this natural impulse in human beings when he investigated how groups of people behave when securing employment contracts. In one of his studies, he gathered together a group of college students interested in making a little extra money and divided them into a group of “employers,” with the larger share of the group “the employees.”
He arranged that the employers would make a contract with their employees to provide a certain amount of effort, for which they’d be paid a set amount.
In one round of games, the employers were allowed to respond to their employees’ effort by paying more for higher effort. In this case, employers also showed an exquisite sense of fairness. More than two-thirds of the time, they rewarded employees who did more than they were contracted for, and nearly half gave rewards to their workers simply for fulfilling the contract. Whenever contracts were not fulfilled, two-thirds of the employers meted out punishment.
On the employees’ side, most did more than their fair share. Underachievement on contracts fell from 83 per cent to 26 per cent, and overfillment of contracts rose tenfold. Most significantly, allowing the bosses to reward or punish their workers according to effort increased the ultimate payoff to both bosses and workers by an average of 40 per cent.
The point is simply this. Fairness runs deep within us. We don’t mind people being paid more if their effort is also greater or they have skills superior to ours, so long as we are also treated fairly.
The liberal elite
The Democratic party became so aligned with the powerful in this country it simply forgot to focus on unfairness, which runs deeply through every layer of our society, particularly those considered Democratic strongholds. It didn’t think it necessary to check in with the approximately tens of millions of people in America who cannot get a job, or those who work but struggle to make ends meet.
I observed the hypocrisy of many of the A list actors stand up for Hillary and cheer about ‘stronger together.’ In many instances, these stars, directors and producers are receiving wildly outsize sums for their work on highly successful shows when, increasingly, the support cast of jobbing actors – the people who help to make or break a film or play – are being asked to show up for rehearsals and makeup sessions without pay.
This kind of unfairness layers through virtually all of our liberal service industries. The Occupy movement was the first stage in protest against the 1 per cent, and the Democrats – the supposed party of the people – were deaf to it this time around.
In many ways, they switched places with the Republicans as the party of the moneyed class. But until they address the unfairness in their midst, they will remain in the wilderness.
In 1992, Bill Clinton kept his campaign managers focused on one thing, and they had a slogan for it: it’s the economy, stupid.
This time around, it should have been: it’s unfairness, stupid.