Fairness

When I decided to categorize the posts on this weblog, the first category that occurred to me was one I haven’t explicitly written much about yet, namely fairness. I don’t know if the current economic crisis can be even partly untangled, but the only approaches which interest me are the ones that would increase the fairness in our social arrangements, a quality that I think is at low ebb right now.

My posts on fairness will not be systematic or comprehensive, and they will not advocate any particular solution to the problem, because I’m not close to having figured it out. But I’m confident that unfairness is not an abstract quality that can be defined away, but one that can be directly perceived. As a witness I call C.S. Lewis, who took the very same idea and used it as his opening argument in his book Mere Christianity.

Every one has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”—”That’s my seat, I was there first”—”Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”— “Why should you shove in first?”—”Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—”Come on, you promised.”

People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise.

It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

There is such a thing as fairness, what Lewis calls the Law of Nature, and everyone is implicitly agreed on its broad outlines. Lewis goes on to make a second point.

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table. Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point, which is this. None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature. If there are any exceptions among you, I apologise to them. They had much better read some other work, for nothing I am going to say concerns them.

And now, turning to the ordinary human beings who are left:  I hope you will not misunderstand what I am going to say.  I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else.  I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.  There may be all sorts of excuses for us. That time you were so unfair to the children was when you were very tired. That slightly shady business about the money—the one you have almost forgotten—came when you were very hard up. And what you promised to do for old So-and-so and have never done-well, you never would have promised if you had known how frightfully busy you were going to be. And as for your behaviour to your wife (or husband) or sister (or brother) if I knew how irritating they could be, I would not wonder at it-and who the dickens am I, anyway? I am just the same. 

That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves. 

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.  These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in. 

Any thoughtful Christian can see where Lewis is headed with this particular setup. I may want to go there as well at some point, but to start I simply want to offer a series of ongoing posts about real, everyday situations where it appears that our current social arrangements are resulting in puzzlingly high levels of unfairness.

My first example comes from a dirt farmer whose integrity and common sense I much admire, Tom Scepaniak. The Northern Farmer sees so clearly and writes so directly that I really don’t need to do much besides quote him at length.

Last spring and early summer some of the folks around here were talking that there’d be $20 a bushel corn come fall, and I just smiled. Yup, sure will. The ag media was performing a brainwashing on the farming sector that was second to none, telling them that crops would never go down in price again because there was such a demand for it. And a demand for ethanol, (patriotic farmland music going here), where farmers would save our nation, and get rich in the process. I just shook my head at the blatant greed being spread around, a brainwashing like I’ve hardly ever seen in my farming lifetime. Buy, buy, buy, they said. You can afford to put in these expensive inputs, you can afford to bid up land rent prices into the hundreds of dollars. You can afford to outbid your neighbor for the land he rented for decades, ….because you deserve to get rich! You deserve to get rich buying all the GMO seeds, and the sprays that go with these GMO seed. You can pay over a thousand dollars a ton for fertilizers, no problem. There’s a demand that’ll never go away!!……………Yup.

Mark my word, it won’t be long till there’s another financial crisis, and this time it will be agriculture. Just as in housing, farmers bought into the lie and overspent, over borrowed and all that goes with it. And the unlimited good times ahead that were promised and promised are vaporizing daily. There’s an old saying in farm country. A farmers worst enemy is himself. It boils down to greed, pure and simple. Just like in other sectors of the economy, greed. And there wouldn’t be much problem if there was no greed in the equation. Remember how they said the housing boom would continue forever? They lied. Same in the industrial farming sector. They’ve lied to family farmers and hooked em into their industrial web of high debt and anti God living. And it always destroys. Always.

So tonight, with corn driers humming in every direction I look at what we’ve done over the last few years, stepping away from the “system”. Its tough at times, very tough. But nothing compared to the worries that went with farming the industrial way, nothing. The Bible says it over and over not to covet money, but the system does. And what were once good folks take it hook, line and sinker. I think about this all allot when I drive around my old rusty truck and all these fancy shiny huge pickups make me look like some sort of relic. But I ain’t got no truck payments, and my truck ain’t depreciating from big money down to little money. And except for internet, (which I am looking at closely), there ain’t no modern type of bills for TV and cell phones. Just basic living is all. The old preachers always said, don’t get greedy, don’t worship materialism. But that’s taken a big flip flop these recent years. Now them preachers say you deserve it and a whole bunch of other lies. But the more a person worships the system, the farther they’ll fall. The system always destroys.

In farming, as I stated above, greed and riches have destroyed neighbor relationships, cutting each others throats over land rent. Unheard of rent prices. Dog eat dog. Because this was the promise from companies on the radio and in ag media, that they’d get rich farming the way the system says to farm nowadays. To heck with your neighbors because you deserve it!! Dog eat dog. Families fall apart living like the system say, who cares because its me first! Dog eat dog.

I just pray that the crash that comes in ag will wake up the farmers and their families that survive it.

Say what you will about how these farmers are suffering the just consequences of their greed and gullibility, what I see are vast armies of equipment salesman and seed salesman and fertilizer salesmen and grain brokers and ethanol speculators and banks and credit card companies and, yes, even preachers who profited mightily as those farmers bought into the lies they were being told. Profit that they walk away with as things fall apart and the farmer is left crushed by the burden of the foolish decisions he was enticed and sometimes deceived into making.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but in many of these cases the consequences are being distributed far too unevenly to call it fair. There may be little or nothing we can do to improve the balance, but we can at least recognize the unfairness for what it is, think about its sources, and perhaps determine to minimize our own participation in a game that turns out this way.

One of the most eloquent cries against such unfairness I know of appears in the afterword of Philip K. Dick’s book A Scanner Darkly. Dick was a little too old to be a child of the Sixties, but he hung around with them, played their games with them, and suffered with them as they paid for what they had done. He knew that, even though they should have known better, it wasn’t nearly enough to say, “They should have known better.”

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed—run over, maimed, destroyed—but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it…. For a while I myself was one of these children playing in the street; I was, like the rest of them, trying to play instead of being grown up, and I was punished. I am on the list below, which is a list of those to whom this novel is dedicated, and what became of each.

Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying.” But the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. It is, then, only a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence. It is not different from your life-style, it is only faster. It all takes place in days or weeks or months instead of years. “Take the cash and let the credit go,” as Villon said in 1460. But that is a mistake if the cash is a penny and the credit a whole lifetime.

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3 thoughts on “Fairness

  1. Tessa,

    I’m honored that you stopped by to comment. I’m a great admirer of your husband’s writing.

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