What is freedom, and is it fair?
This question is monumental. It lays the foundation for whether our laws should leave us alone or intervene for the sake of fairness. Economically, it challenges us to think of what regulations, if any, we need. It shifts the way we look at our world.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What's going on between freedom and fairness?
An example: Jake and Holly are hiking on the Grand Canyon, and Holly wants to buy Jake's (awesome) safari hat. Normally, Holly would ride her burro over to Jake and offer him $100 to buy the hat then and there.
Unfortunately, Jake's burro gets terrified by a snake-like shadow in the path, tossing Jake off while bolting down the trail. Jake nearly falls into the canyon, but manages to cling to the cliff by his fingertips. Holly rushes to help him up, but then realizes her situation has improved. She makes him a shrewd, if heartless, offer — if he wants her to rescue him, Jake has to cough up the safari hat for a measly $5.
The original trade exemplifies a classic free decision: Jake can make the trade if it's worth it to him, and saying no has no consequences. The second example is much trickier — Jake technically could say no, but at the cost of maybe falling to his death, in which case he can't really enjoy the hat. We feel he has no freedom to choose.
More importantly, we feel Holly is being deeply unfair. She is exploiting Jake's situation, trading against his bad luck in order to get ahead. So while she gives him a "choice" — his hat or his life — we don't think of it as free or fair at all.
These examples can be interpreted to include a shocking number of more realistic scenarios. When a mugger demands, "Your wallet or your life," is that a free choice? What about a cancer patient who can either walk away from treatment or bankrupt himself with a $10,000 medical bill? Or parents who choose between slaving away at minimum-wage jobs and not being able to feed their children?
These questions point at an uncanny relationship between freedom and fairness. Jake's decision is not made freely, so we hesitate to say it's a fair deal. Similarly, we don't want to say Jake is free to choose because his choices are not fair.
There is no battle between fairness and freedom; they depend on each other.
The issue with several of these arguments is that they falsely claim we are "all better off" with "more freedom." They take the mythical war of freedom over fairness to be not only a moral prerogative, but a factual necessity.
In truth, "freedom at all costs" is a terrible doctrine to follow both ideologically and factually. If we are perfectly free, we are free to be murdered, stolen from and extorted. I know these are extreme examples, but why are laws against these moral tragedies allowed in the libertarian ethos when other similar laws are seen as morally wrong?
If a corporation makes $1 billion a year, can its bartering with an unemployed person about to lose his home really be free or fair? Millions of Americans are clinging to the edge of the metaphorical Grand Canyon of homelessness and debt, and libertarians claim their choice to work at minimum wage or part time is "free."
Unequal incomes are not rewards for better workers, and they are not accessible to all Americans. According to the New York Times and PEW research, 65 percent of people born poor stay poor, and 62 percent of people born rich stay rich. Do we honestly think children of the poor are naturally inferior workers than children of the rich?
Systemic inequality and unfairness is not an unfortunate byproduct of freedom – it's a threat to it.
If you care about freedom, you should never view "fairness" and "equality" as dirty words. Freedom can't live without fairness.
Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.