The intent of fairness

When one is talking about fairness (or equality), there’s usually two dimensions that are invoked: Fairness of opportunity and fairness of outcome. They can be pretty obvious at times… but not always. I’d like to propose a third way of looking at policy to assess when objections to fairness or equality are raised: intent.

Social Security (in the USAian sense) is a perfect example. Yesterday I heard a co-worker complaining about Social Security being “a big scam”. His claim was that he couldn’t draw it yet because he “had the wherewithal to keep working”. To him, it was unfair because he felt both outcome (he couldn’t draw as much from social security because he was still working) and opportunity (he met the age criteria) were being violated.

By recasting this in the light of intent, we can better examine his claims. (I’m purposely treating them as true and valid; it’s immaterial to my argument whether they are or not.) Social Security, created as part of the New Deal, was intended to ensure that our nation’s elderly and those unable to provide for themselves were not left destitute. (Again, we’re treating the public, stated purpose as being forthright and honest. Be paranoid on your own time.)

Examining the intent, my co-worker’s complaint becomes moot. Inherently, because he works (and I can guarantee you he makes more than median USAian income), he is not in need of social security. He is providing for himself more now than social security ever will. It’s a Keynesian (in intent) approach: social security, welfare, and other income redistribution programs are intended to provide a “floor” to poverty among our citizenry. Once that fundamental societal obligation is paid, then anything extra is superfluous. That is, profit.

Unfortunately, we have taken capitalism to be an end in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. Humanity has become a commodity to be traded – faceless labor – rather than fellow beings. There are intents to our actions; “that’s just the way it’s done” should be considered an obscenity.

As we re-evaluate our societal rules and laws in terms of intent, perhaps we can move back towards treating other people as just that. People.