Estimating procedural fairness from outcomes

November 3, 2011

Historically, I think Americans have been pretty happy with procedural fairness.

If we know the rules are applied fairly, we can accept unfair-seeming outcomes. And this is most relevant when seemingly unfair outcomes happen, when some people take home a much larger slice of the pie.

However, what if we don’t know how “fair” the rules are? How am I supposed to know if the modern economic system is fair, in terms of procedure? In that case, maybe I use outcomes to assess if rules are fair. I think backwards. And in that case I think it’s far more likely that I see an unequal system than a fair one.

Indeed, the whole idea of respecting procedural fairness is that some seemingly unfair outcomes happen, but I know that it was fair because I could have achieved it as well. Thus I respect the system, while disliking a specific outcome of it.

Given the statistics on inter-generational mobility, it definitely doesn’t seem to be a fair game from the start, but lots of the current angst isn’t from the ones you’d expect, it’s from the ones who could have been part of the 1%.