Free (not fair) Markets

Jan 282009

As one who has long been opposed to fair trade, fair wages, and other such forms of political favoritism, I was fascinated by Bart Wilson’s article, “Fair’s Fair,” in The Atlantic. It contains this paragraph:

Did you know that fair is one-to-one untranslatable into any other language–that it is distinctly Anglo in origin? And a relatively new word at that? (Late 18th century, actually–the industrial revolution apparently also vastly enhanced our capacity to complain.) But the twisted history of “fair” is even more interesting than that. For the original antonym of fair is not, as most modern Americans would probably expect, unfair. If you want to understand the roots of fairness, look not to ethicists, but to baseball, which still uses the original dichotomy. If a ball is hit outside the bounds of fair play, it’s not unfair–it’s foul. That’s an important clue. As Columbia law professor George Fletcher had noted in his 1996 book Basic Concepts of Legal Thought, the Anglo-American notion of fairness is firmly rooted in the rules of a game.

I’m usually suspicious of any claim that X can’t be translated into language Y. My grandfather used to say that about certain German words, but I’m pretty sure it’s not true. There are usually ways of expressing any idea, even if it can’t be done with a one-to-one translation. My hero St. Ronald once made the foolish statement that the Russians had no word for freedom. But they do. Some of the commenters on Wilson’s article took him to task for this paragraph, and rightly so.

But then Wilson veered into the more interesting topic of whether ideas of fairness vary from culture to culture. There are some interesting experiments waiting to be performed, to see whether a sense of entitlement affects one’s idea of fairness.

And a place to find people with a strong sense of entitlement is perhaps in some subpopulations within our universities. I’ve been privileged to work with a bunch of prima donnas for many years. They are great people to work with and I am not the least bit sarcastic when I say I’ve been privileged. But they do have quite a sense of entitlement. They’d be great subjects for some of Wilson’s experiments.