Saturday, March 29, 2008

A 'Fair Go' for all M'sians. How do we be fair, really fair to everyone?

To be honest with you guys, I always scratched my head why many perfectly decent and upstanding Malay folks could be so against meritocracy and so against the abolishment of the NEP (which is after all, the anti-christ of meritocracy). I mean, how could good people be good, but at the same time so unfair?

And then recently, I came across the article below when I was searching for something about the Australian notion of a 'Fair Go'. I spent most of my truly formative adult years between 17 and 22 in Melbourne where I studied and worked. I was and still am totally taken by the uniquely Aussie concept of how everyone, no matter who you are, deserves no less (AND no more) than a fair go. And to this date, it remains the main value system affecting how I lead my life, and also the reason why I blog.

Anyway, the article is entitled 'What is Fair about a 'Fair Go'' and interestingly, it dwells into the different and contrasting 'definitions' of fairness.

Huh??? Wait a cotton pickin' minute... Fairness has more than one meaning? Besides meritocracy? How can? I mean, fair is fair, right? Well folks... apparently not.

There's meritocracy which is essentially the fairness of opportunity. This is free tenders. This is open competition. This is Singapore. Everybody gets the same chance or opportunity. And how each person takes advantage of their equal opportunity determines their personal outcome. So, you work hard, you get rich. You bum around, you don't get rich. That seems fair, no?

But the downside is that along the way, meritocracy loses sight of whether 'everybody' has the same capacity or ability to take advantage of the opportunities. This is the classic Malay argument against meritocracy. That the Chinese are already so far ahead educationally and economically, and are somehow better conditioned for competition - that it's not a level playing field despite the goal posts for the Chinese and Malays being of equal distance apart.

And then there's also egalitarianism which is the fairness of outcome or results. This is one of the primary arguments for the NEP. In that everyone (ie. each race) should get a fair share of the outcome ie. WEALTH. It sounds good. Everyone gets a slice of the cake. Nobody is left out, and nobody is left behind. Everybody gains. Fair, yes?

What egalitarianism doesn't adequately address is how big a slice of the cake should you get, and in fact, whether some people should get any cake at all? Should someone who works harder get a bigger piece of the cake, or should the guy with more kids to feed get more? This is the classic Chinese argument against the NEP. Why should the Chinese pay equal income taxes and bear the same responsibilities and burdens as the Malays, when they don't get the same opportunities in education, politics and business? Why should parents with more kids pay less tax and get more benefits compared to a couple with no kids? In effect, why should the outcome reflect the numerical (racial) composition of society rather than the individual efforts and contribution of each component in that society?

And lastly, there's liberalism which doesn't give a rat's ass what the 'allocation' of opportunities nor outcomes are, as long as everyone plays by the rules. A big question mark here is 'what the hell are the rules?'

In the US, the rules might be called Capitalism. Or the freedom to create your own opportunities and master your own destiny (outcome) within the confines of the American system of inalienable constitutional rights. If you fall by the wayside, too bad. Try again. That's the American dream.

In Malaysia, liberalism is what the NEP has perverted into. Instead of rules that apply to everyone, we have an institutionalised system of unequal laws and govt policies (that are neither meritocratic nor egalitarian) that is deemed fair to everyone - based on a so-called 'Social Contract' or its more recent guise, Ketuanan Melayu. It's fair, and therefore equitable because our forefathers, and perhaps our four mothers also, agreed to it 50 years ago. But they also conveniently forgot to attach a time limit, which essentially places this curse on our descendents as well. Liberalism in the local context might just as well be legalised racial supremacism, where unequal rules are somehow fair... or else. In the past, there was a similar system of 'fairplay' called Apartheid.

Well... all this got me thinking. I mean, really thinking.

I'm in a bit of a no man's land right now, in terms of my convictions. So much so that I haven't been blogging much in the last couple of weeks, despite all the sensational post-general election happenings.

My opinions have always stood uncompromisingly on the bedrock of fairness... meritocracy or the equality of opportunity as I saw it. Now it seems maybe fairness is not quite so straightforward?

In advocating meritocracy and survival of the fittest, we simply ensure equal opportunity and leave the outcomes up to individual effort. It's inscrutably fair in that each person is judged and rewarded on the merits of their ability and effort. But if the outcomes do turn out to be unequally spread at the end of the day (and the Bell Curve ensures they will be so since each individual differs in ability and motivation to work/effort), no amount of meritocratic logic will change the fact that we will end up with some very fit & rich survivors, and lots of very unhappy, unfit & poor ones. Just look at Singapore and virtually every other laissez-faire meritocratic society. The rich get richer and the poor just become poorer. On a sublime level, that's fair and unfair at the same time.

At the other extreme, advocating egalitarianism has to eventually and inevitably lead to a socialist, communist type of society. Where it doesn't matter how hard you work or how smart you are, but the surgeon is going to get paid roughly the same as his gardener, and not much more than his lazy bastard bum of a neighbour who sleeps 18 hours a day. Not rewarding effort and initiative or similarly, refusing to penalise laziness and inaction will simply lead to a society where nobody is motivated to work... at all. It's just not worth it. Since I'm going to get fed anyway, so why the hassle of actually working? Much less work hard?

So... do I hear you say 'strike a balance between meritocracy and egalitarianism'. Ah... but then? Of course lah. Who doesn't know your mother is a woman? But where's the balance? Where do you draw the line and how do you define the point where one side stops being desirable and the other side starts?

Like I said... it got me thinking. Really thinking.

Below are excerpts of the article. Links to the whole thing at the bottom.

What is Fair About a 'Fair Go'?
by Peter Saunders

Social affairs intellectuals who equate popular support for a ‘fair go’ with egalitarianism are out of step with what ordinary Australians think ‘fairness’ means, argues Peter Saunders

An egalitarian, a meritocrat and a classical liberal once sat down to play the board game, Monopoly. All agreed at the outset that it would be fair to give each player the same amount of cash with which to play. The egalitarian thought this was fair because everybody should always have the same. The meritocrat thought it was fair because it created a level playing field on which everybody could compete. The classical liberal thought it was fair because it gave nobody any special favours (the same rules applied to everybody) and it violated nobody’s property rights (since the cash at the start of the game belongs to nobody). So the game began.

Within quite a short time, pandemonium broke out.

‘This is no longer fair!’, cried the egalitarian. ‘Some people now have more money and property than others. Why should I have to put up with Old Kent Road when you are sitting there with Mayfair? We should redistribute to get back as close as we can to the equal shares with which we started.’

The meritocrat, too, was troubled: ‘I don’t agree that we should all end up with the same amount, but I have noticed that those who have played with most skill and who have taken the game most seriously are not being properly rewarded by the fall of the dice. I have no money yet I have tried hard to succeed. Surely diligence and ability deserve more recognition than they are getting?’.

The classical liberal sighed: ‘We have all played by the rules. Nobody has cheated, and nobody has stolen anybody else’s money or title deeds. Nobody pre-ordained the present distribution of money and property—it is the aggregated outcome of each individual’s free and uncoerced actions and decisions. How, then, can this distribution be considered unfair? What would be unfair is if we agreed by a majority vote to take money or property from the most successful player to share it out among the other two, or to give more to the player deemed most deserving. If we were to do that, we would undermine the principle that the same rules must apply to all players. The best player would then probably go elsewhere, and our game sooner or later would collapse into bickering and chaos.’

The three players glared at each other, each wondering how the other two could be so na├»ve. Each player was convinced that their own definition of ‘fairness’ was self-evidently correct. Compromise was out of the question, for it was clearly impossible to share out the assets equally and to reward the most talented player most highly and to leave everybody with the property to which they had established just title.

Shaking the dice and landing in jail, the meritocrat began to sulk. Fined for landing on Mayfair, the egalitarian kicked the board over in a fit of righteous indignation and began to draw up a petition. The liberal picked up the dice, bade the other two farewell, and went off in search of a game of Snakes and Ladders.


Competing principles of ‘fairness’

We saw at the start of this article that there are at least three different principles of ‘fairness’ in our culture. Most social policy writers acknowledge only one—for them, a ‘fair go’ means greater equality of outcomes. But they fail to understand how, on some definitions, the egalitarian policies they espouse can result in greater injustice rather than fairness.

* The egalitarian definition of fairness focuses on the final distribution of resources. Anything that flattens out the distribution of income and wealth is fair; anything that makes it less equal is unfair. A less than equal distribution can only be justified if it can be demonstrated that no other pattern of distribution could make the worst-off people any better off (as in Rawls’s ‘difference principle’).

* Against this, a meritocratic definition of fairness focuses on the principle of ‘just deserts’. Unequal outcomes are fair provided everybody has had a chance to compete on an equal basis. In particular, fairness requires that the most hard-working and talented people should reap the highest rewards (meritocracy rewards ‘ability plus effort’), and this will only happen if there are no major obstacles blocking the achievement of meritorious individuals from the least advantaged backgrounds.

* In contrast with both of these, the classical liberal conception of fairness denies the relevance of any distributional principle, whether egalitarian or meritocratic. Fairness simply requires an open system governed by the rule of law; it is judged by procedures, not outcomes. People must be free to accumulate assets and to transfer them as they see fit. Provided these rules are followed, the result is ‘fair’ (even if talented people go unrecognised or lazy people are favoured by luck or by birth).

These three principles of fairness are logically incompatible with one another. We cannot maintain that equalising people’s incomes through a steeply progressive tax regime is ‘fair,’ for example, if we also think it is fair that people who work hard should be rewarded more than those who do not (meritocratic fairness), or that people should be allowed to keep what they have gained through voluntary exchange (liberal fairness).

The incompatibility of these three principles of fairness complicates any attempt to unravel what Australians mean when they express their support for a ‘fair go.’ What is clear, however, is that we cannot simply assume that the ‘fair go’ translates as support for any one of these principles as against any other.

Our social affairs intellectuals never doubt that the ‘fair go’ means what they want it to mean—egalitarianism. But while it is plausible to suggest that many of us are attracted to the ideal of greater equality, it is also quite possible that many of us also approve of rewarding hard work and talent, and that we want to protect the rights of individuals to enjoy what is lawfully theirs as a result of market transactions and private transfers. Popular conceptions of fairness are likely to be a lot more complex (and perhaps contradictory) than our social affairs intellectuals imagine when they wax indignant about the loss of the ‘fair go’ ethos. The trouble is that, until recently, nobody thought to ask ordinary Australians what they think ‘fairness’ means.

Read the rest of the article here at the webpage or here for the PDF.

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