The Fairness Campaign

Jul
8
2011
by
Lynne McTaggart
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Recently, I came across an article in the New York Times about our inherent ‘thirst’ for fairness.  The story provided evidence for the fact that human beings, even in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, have an enormous distaste for hierarchical extremes and a deeply and finely honed sense of fairness.  

Recently, I came across an article in the New York Times about our inherent ‘thirst’ for fairness.  The story provided evidence for the fact that human beings, even in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, have an enormous distaste for hierarchical extremes and a deeply and finely honed sense of fairness.

The Ache hunter-gatherers in South America routinely give away up to 90 per cent of the food they gather to needier members of the tribe.  A !Kung bushman inclined to braggadocio about the size of his catch is cut down to size by his fellow hunters with a self-explanatory ritual referred to as ‘insulting the meat.’ Even young children will punish other children who grab for a larger handful of candy than their fair share.The story concluded that fairness burns deep within us because it has evolutionary roots and is felt in the primitive portion of our brains.  

In fact study after study of ethnic societies find only mild differences in wealth in almost any society, with an income equality roughly similar to that of Denmark’s. But what most caught my eye, referred to almost in passing, was the evidence that even in our modern American society, we all have a similar idea of what exactly constitutes fairness.  In fact, Americans of all political parties have innate ideas of fairness that are virtually identical.  In a recent study carried out by Harvard Business School, when asked to design their ideal society for wealth distribution, both Republicans and Democrats came up with a markedly similar picture for a just society, much like that of Sweden where there is far less division between rich and poor than there is in America. 

Although we may be polarized in many areas, all of us – rich, poor, Democrat, Republican - agree on what’s fair.  
Deep inside us we instinctively know what is fair or unfair; fairness is hard-wired within us. Scientists have discovered an “it’s not fair” spot in the human brain that is there from the time we’re babies.  Studies show that people are less interested in making money for themselves, say, than in rectifying financial inequality to the point where 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.

In our hearts we know what’s fair.

A country built on fairness

In theory, fairness is a sacred concept to most Americans. After all, America was built on a platform of fairness.  We severed British sovereignty over the American colonies because we felt victim to a litany of unfair laws and practices. Our rationale for this insurrection, as we announced in the Declaration of Independence, was the ‘self-evident’ truth of the most fundamental type of fairness –  that ‘all men are created equal’ and all  have a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ 

Economic studies demonstrate that people the world over not only are inherently generous, but also abhor unfairness—what he terms “inequity aversion.”  A sense of fairness in a group 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.

Fairness is crucial to us – and crucial to our society. 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, built-in sense of fairness.

 
But cooperation can be maintained only to the extent that individuals are fair with each other. Our survival depends upon our ability to give each one of us a turn, and the extent to which any society begins to fray relates to the deterioration in fairness and basic reciprocity. 

All of us hold the understanding, deep within all of us, that we are best off in every way by taking a far larger and more all-embracing view of what constitutes self-interest.

 
So,  whatever happened to fairness?  If we all know what’s fair, why is life so unfair right now? Bankers have paid themselves record bonuses while the recession they helped to create has caused vast numbers of Americans to lose their jobs, their savings – even their homes.  On the other hand hardworking conservative Americans resent paying higher taxes either for healthcare on those not contributing or to bail out the banks that have gone on to generate record profits with no immediate payback.In short, life feels more unfair than it ever has.  Presently we have strayed both from our birthright as human beings and from our nation’s founding principles. America and indeed every society in the West are now at our most unfair in history – at grave cost.  

Epidemiologists show that in countries with giant income disparity between the very rich and the very poor, both the most affluent and the very poorest suffer from higher rates of ill health, crime, mental illness, environmental problems, and violence.

When life is unfair you and I both lose, no matter how wealthy either of us is.

Western countries in the main are at their most unequal in history, where our sense of taking and giving has been replaced with taking whatever you can get for you and yours alone. 

Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world with half the world’s billionaires, America has far and away the highest level of all social problems—crime, lack of education, mental illness, suicide, disease of all varieties—of twenty countries, and the United Kingdom has the third highest. 

Unfair practices in business

Besides income disparity, most Western countries are blatantly unfair to consumers. The individualistic, winner-take-all zeitgeist of modern times is to blame for many of the crises we presently face in our society, particularly the excesses of the financial sector, with its insistence on a bigger and better profit every year, at any cost. This mindset is responsible for the raft of deceit that now goes on in every sector of society, from the 50 per cent of college students now known to cheat on exams to corporate cheating, even in sectors designed for the public interest. 

Up to three-quarters of all research published in the medical literature about pharmaceutical drugs, for instance, is now believed to be ghostwritten by public relations firms hired by drug companies, with serious and even potentially fatal side-effects routinely concealed. When profit rather than fairness is the only consideration, a company will seldom notice the ripple effect of every action on an entire chain of being — the living things, the natural world, the consumers of the product, the people from other countries whom they harm by what is being sold or produced.  

What exactly does fair mean? Fair is a word with many meanings.  According to the dictionary, ‘fair’ means impartial, free from discrimination or dishonesty, and law-abiding or conforming to rules.  But it also has another connotation – one of beauty, purity and ease. 

A ship has a ‘fair passage’ when unobstructed.  A person traveling with a tight schedule can arrive on time with ‘a fair wind.’  When an author makes a ‘fair copy,’ his manuscript is legible and unblemished. 

Fairness is a close relation of truth; life is fair when someone is given an equal chance, when a decision is evenhanded, when something is simply and wholly right. Fairnes
s has the ring of perfection; when Emily Dickenson wrote ‘Ample make this bed,’ the poem made famous in the movie Sophie’s Choice, and the line ‘In it wait till judgment break/ Excellent and fair,’ her use of fair had two meanings:  justice and a piece of carpentry perfectly rendered.  In the poet’s mind – and from its historical meaning – ‘fair’ conjures up a sense that something is pure, balanced and true.

What we mean by it is not sameness or redistribution – but an equal chance, an equal possibility, an equal say in areas that affect our society, a reward commensurate with contribution, a reward that does not come at someone else’s expense.

Fairness is not necessarily socialism

Fairness doesn’t not mean redistribution of wealth or a socialist-style, across-the-board equality. The Fairness Campaign is emphatically not an apology for communism or socialism. 

For instance, the state in the United States that reports the lowest level of social problems is New Hampshire, but it also has one of the lowest public expenditures of any state. New Hampshire simply does not have a huge disparity between the income of its richest and poorest inhabitants.  There are opportunities there for all.

Throughout history the fact that there is a wealthy group of individuals at the top of a society has not automatically made for revolution. As studies show, even children have a nuanced understanding of fairness – that a child who worked harder at school deserves a better grade than a slacker.  Poorer levels of society are usually prompted to rise up in rebellion only when conditions are manifestly unfair, such as when food is deliberately made scarce. 
In the wake of the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 the fury that most ordinary citizens felt – and still feel – toward bankers and traders had nothing to do with income resentment but a deep and compelling sense of unfairness that investment houses like Goldman Sachs still pay record bonuses after the recession they had helped to create caused so many others to lose their jobs. 

In the midst of all of our current crises, re-establishing fairness is crucial to our survival right now, to the survival of our American society – and indeed to the survival of the world.  

The good news is that doesn’t take much to re-establish fairness.  Scientific studies shows that in any society, if a culture of turn-taking falls apart with too many taking too much, all it requires is a small group of individuals committed to strong reciprocity to “invade” a population of self-interested individuals and turn the entire thing around.  

Selflessness is the most self-serving act of all because it is the position naturally most beneficial to us all.  It is possible – indeed most beneficial – for us to live our lives taking into account both what is good for our world and what is good for ourselves.  

Because this is so important, I’m starting a Fairness Campaign to re-establish fairness in our lives.  
The point I want to impress upon you is that you don’t have to wait for your elected officials to make things fairer for you and for your community.  All it takes is small practices you can start with yourself and your immediate circle.  As the scientific evidence shows, your own practices can quickly become viral and change your relationships, your work place, your community – and ultimately the world. 

You can re-establish fairness in your life, in your community, in your workplace and in your country by following the few simple Fairness Principles, below.

The Fairness Principles: How to Create a Fairer Society and a Fairer Life for Me and You

1. Make a vow today that even if life sometimes seems unfair, you don’t have to be.  Take a daily fairness inventory of your actions and drop those that are unfair.

2. Adopt the golden rule in your practices and your relationships.  Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.  Treat everyone with respect, fairness and honesty. Refuse to engage in any activity at another’s expense.

3. Choose words and actions at work that are both good for you and good for the rest of the team.

4. Do not support any business that does not place fairness to the consumer above profits.  Refuse to support any business that engages in corporate cheating or other practices that deliberately harm its competitors (such as predatory dumping).

5. Refuse to support any organization that engages in practices that are unfair to any sector anywhere in the world.

6. Support or work only for corporations or institutions with fairness principles for wage-setting, so that managers and CEO are not paid wages disproportionate to their contribution and workers in domestic or foreign factories are not paid disproportionately less than their contribution.  

7. Support only those laws that provide equal opportunity and fair practices for all citizens of every persuasion, and lobby against any laws that blatantly favor one sector of society over another or that are blatantly unfair to any sector of society.

8. Refuse to support any financial institution or corporation with disproportionate rewards to its senior management, compared with rewards to its consumers.

9. Encourage fair play over winning at all costs in your children. Teach them to choose words and actions that benefit both themselves and those around them, even those that are not their friends.

10. Be respectful, considerate and fair with your neighbors and the members of your community, even on your own property. 

Please add your own ideas to this list and pass it on.  Fairness is even more contagious than greed because in our hearts we know what’s fair.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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