Fairness matters

“Fairness matters. There is something powerful about the idea that we are all in this together – that until the lockdowns can be eased for everyone, they should be eased for nobody.”

Important words, and there is much to agree with (even though given the vastly differential outcomes from the pandemic, I personally have doubts over whether it is fair to say that we are actually all in this together).

Yet in his piece in last weekend’s FT Magazine, Tim Harford (the Financial Times’ and Radio 4’s counterintuitively rather public ‘Undercover Economist’), someone with whom it is generally hard to disagree, sets this sentence up as an assertion he should dispute for professional reasons. The words before the sentence quoted above are “But not even the Undercover Economist is just an economist.” Harford is suggesting – actually saying very clearly – that fairness is not good economics.

It’s odd. We do know that economists tend to rush to theory to simplify the excessive number of variables found among the complexities of the real world – it is not by chance that the old saw “That works very well in practice, but will it work in theory?” is most usually attributed to an economist. Yet why should economists live in denial of fairness, something that is so fundamental to who we are as human beings? Why set up such a false divide between feeling the sense of fairness and the analysis done by an economist?

It’s not just Harford, of course. I once challenged Branko Milanovic, the excellent economist of inequality, on precisely this point. His simple answer to the question of why favour analysing inequality over fairness was “Inequality is quantifiable, fairness is not”. But that is precisely the point: fairness matters viscerally to us, much more than mere inequality ever could do. Its unquantifiable nature is precisely its strength. Happily, I have noticed Milanovic using the term fairness more frequently of late.

And of course Harford is using the distinction in part to make his point. As he says repeatedly in the article, “we are not selfish”. Though it does have to be admitted that sometimes we do all forget not to be; as he says towards the end of the piece: “We just need the occasional reminder to look out for each other.” It’s a shame that economics works hard to find ways to exclude such thoughts from its calculations, rather than build in the sense of fairness that might lead us more systematically to such thoughtful and less selfish mindsets. After all, fairness matters.

The painful politics of vaccination, Tim Harford, Financial Times, March 6 2021