We were talking about fairness over pizza with our neighbor last night. Tony was pretty teed off at the unions, something I’ve heard a lot of from Mr. Thrifty over the past couple of weeks. True to litigator form, however, Mr. T came to the defense of the “working man” when hearing his own opinions read back to him over cheese and pepperoni.
I’ve written a lot about justice here because we lawyers are in the justice-delivery business no matter how much we sometimes think it’s only about money. See e.g., here and here. I’ve also written about the desire for fairness being so universal that even monkeys will “strike” if they see a fellow worker “earning” more or better compensation (grapes trump cucumbers), going without food rather than working while seething with resentment.
Which brings us to Gail Collins’ opinion piece in the NYTimes today about dogs shaking hands with men in white coats, bread, and the auto unions.
First the dogs. As Collins writes:
Folks at the University of Vienna conducted a test in which dogs were asked to shake hands over and over and over again. If you have any experience with dogs, you will not be surprised to hear that they were absolutely delighted. And they didn’t care about being paid! The opportunity to perform the same trick endlessly with a stranger in a white coat was reward enough.
Then the researchers brought in new dogs that were given a piece of bread as a reward for every handshake. The uncompensated dogs watched, lost their innate love of mindless repetition and grew sullen.
“They get so mad that they look at you and just don’t give you the paw anymore,” said Friederike Range, one of the scientists.
So O.K. Dogs are secretly obsessed with fairness. (And bread. Who knew?)
Then the auto bail-out.
The really hard lifting still lies ahead, and we cannot possibly do it if we’re going to dwell too much on the fairness thing. It’s just too easy for lawmakers to dodge the tough vote by reminding their constituents that somebody else is getting more breaks than they are.
Which somebody always is. If Senator DeMint’s constituents are going to riot over a bailout for the auto industry, they’ll wind up being met by tool-and-die makers waving torches and yelling about soybean subsidies. If the lawmakers from Alabama say their constituents do not want their tax money going to bail out Michigan, the people in Michigan are going to say that they never really enjoyed paying more taxes to the federal government than their state received in aid, while Alabama got a return of $1.61 on the dollar. And anytime a representative from the Great Plains opens his mouth, the people from New York are going to point out that while every state gets the same number of senators, there are more people waiting for a subway in Brooklyn in rush hour than inhabit all of Wyoming.We can really get tiresome on the subject. You don’t want to go there.
And finally, the solution.
Any mammal can obsess about fairness. (Did I mention how ticked off monkeys get if they find out they’re getting cucumbers while somebody in the next cage has a grape?) The real human trick is to get past the quid pro quo and try to focus on the common good.