Capitalism and the “fairness instinct”

Posted: 14 July 2010 in Uncategorized
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No doubt, many of us are motivated by a “fairness instinct.”

We think about the fairness of many dimensions of contemporary capitalism—on both the Right and the Left, inside and outside the discipline of economics. Many on the Right complain about the fairness of taxes, government regulations, and limits on profit-making activities, while those on the Left criticize the fairness of cutting social programs, unregulated trade, and capitalist exploitation.

That’s why the outcomes of the Ultimatum Game are interesting: they show that participants will often insist upon fairness, even when that means lessening the probability of a positive payoff to them.

So, David P. Barash is right, there is something like a fairness instinct in contemporary capitalism. But then are two different ways of proceeding. One is to look for a biological instinct, something rooted in the genes and the process of evolution. The other is to investigate the origins of discourses of fairness in history and society.

I must admit, I’m less than convinced of the idea being promoted by some evolutionary psychologists that fairness is part of humans’ biological inheritance (just as I have been suspicious of attempts to locate a “selfish gene”). I’m more inclined to look in the direction of history and society. Fairness is, I think, a concept that is part of bourgeois society, which is created and disseminated in a wide variety of discourses and sites, including economics. (To be clear, there may be other notions of fairness in human history, outside and beyond bourgeois society. My point is only that capitalism has its own particular notions of fairness, and they’re the ones that motivate our current “fairness instinct.”)

Fairness is an important part of the self-justification of bourgeois society. For example, market outcomes are considered fair because sovereign individuals are free to engage in voluntary transactions, which result in equal exchanges. That’s an idea that is created and reproduced throughout contemporary society, especially in mainstream economics.

We can’t really step outside such notions of fairness, grounded as they are in contemporary discourses. What we can do—what the critique of political economy attempts to do—is hold those hands of fairness to the fire, show the places where existing notions of fairness break down, and move in the direction of alternative—noncapitalist—notions of fairness.

Barash even cites one key example: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Here, Marx starts from a particular notion of bourgeois fairness (everybody gets what they deserve) and then breaks it into two separate parts (everybody contributes according to their ability, which is separate from getting what they need), thereby moving beyond existing notions of bourgeois fairness.

That’s why the theory of profit is one of the most contentious in the history of economics and contemporary economic theory: profits can be theorized as a return to capital (and therefore fair, as in neoclassical economics) or they are the result of exploitation (and therefore represent a fundamental unfairness, as in Marxian theory).

According to a Marxist’s fairness instinct, capitalism is founded on a basic unfairness.

Comments
  1. […] step outside some historically and socially constituted notion of fairness (since, as I have argued before, fairness is an important part of the self-justification of capitalism), then in a capitalist […]

  2. […] me explain. As I have written before, I’m not particularly convinced of the idea being promoted by Starman et al. and by […]

  3. […] me explain. As I have written before, I’m not particularly convinced of the idea being promoted by Starman et al. and by […]

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