Monday, September 11, 2006

Lactation Stations and the Dogged Pursuit of Fairness

There is a great post on the Mises Blog today about "lactation stations" at Starbucks. Apparently, Starbucks provides rooms for its female managers where they can go to lactate for a few minutes - storing breast milk to feed their babies in bottles when they go home in the evening. Probably not surprisingly, the girls behind the counter serving coffee don't have access to this service.

Great social injustice, right?

Here's the Mises blog's response:

The Times should stop publishing stupid articles whose sum and substance is a pathetic metaphysical whine at the fact that some people are better off than others. It and the rest of the left should finally learn to live with the fact that if everyone is free to pursue his (or her) own happiness, virtually everyone will succeed, and do so to an ever greater extent, though never equally. They should learn that there is absolutely no injustice in this, “social” or otherwise, but that there is profound injustice in the only other alternatives that they leave open, namely, preventing the success of the more successful ... and in forcing some people to provide for others at the point of a gun ...

Indeed. This line is so damn good it's worth repeating:

...if everyone is free to pursue his (or her) own happiness, virtually everyone will succeed, and do so to an ever greater extent, though never equally.

I don't really understand the left's obsession with equality. Don't get me wrong, equality is nice - a worthy goal. But there are other, much more important values - like material progress and freedom. We'll pursue equality as far as possible - but not at the expense of these others.

Some recent experiments with capuchins (monkeys) give reason to believe that there is a biological basis for obsession with equality in politics. The experiment works like this: pairs of capuchins are trained to give an object (a stone, in this case) to the human experimenter. They are then rewarded with a piece of cucumber. In some cases, however, one of the two is given a grape (a better food) - or else given food for nothing at all. In this cases, the "unfairly" rewarded monkey would often pout - sometimes even throwing away the cucumber it had "earned" by handing over the rock. Since the situation is "unfair" (i.e. one monkey gets "paid" less than the other for the same amount of "work" - or, in some cases, in spite of the fact that the other monkey didn't "work" at all), the researchers want to conclude that fairness has a biological basis in certain social creatures. Maybe we humans, too, have something in our blood that makes us pursue goals like "equality."

Going on a tanget a bit - the subtitle for the article reads:

If you expect equal pay for equal work, you're not the only species to have a sense of fair play. Blame evolution.

An interesting choice of analogy. A more apt analogy might have been "if welfare queens who sit around and do nothing but get paid anyway tick you off, you're not the only species to have a sense of fair play. Blame evolution." But whatever.

Let's take this as an existence proof: there's something in the blood that makes us demand to be treated equally. If we can see that someone else has more than we do, we get jealous, annoyed, petulant.

From a purely rational perspective, we could say that the moneky's indignation on not having been given an "equal" reward is unjustified. After all, handing over a stone is not hard work. The monkey gets the cucumber essentially for free, and in any case he's better off with a cucumber than with a stone. So what if another monkey gets a grape? A cumumber is a net (and cheaply obtained) gain, right? Isn't that enough?

Rationally, yes - but emotionally, apparently not. And I'm satisfied with that as an explanation. I think the obsession with equality in politics does indeed have some kind of emotional, rather than rational, basis. There's no directly survivalist reason why anyone should demand the same pay for the same work. What people really want is the pay, and that's the reason they do the work. Period. There might be survivalist reasons why someone would want the best possible pay for the work he does (the motivation being to minimize effort). I can see a survivalist basis for negotiation, in other words. But a survivalist basis for "equality" as a value? Could there be such a thing?

The article suggests that there could - as the foundation for cooperative activity. Well, maybe for certain kinds of cooperative activity (donations to charity spring to mind). But for the most part people engage in cooperative activity because it strengthens the chances of payoff. So, for example, we join investment clubs because pooling resources gives us more pull with the stockbroker, we carpool becuase it reduces energy costs, etc. How would a "fairness instinct" play a role in these kinds of activities? Perhaps it functions the same way I believe empathy functions in morality - as a motivation. If there is some inherent advantage to cooperative activity (and there are reasons to believe that there is), perhaps evolving a sense of fairness "greases the wheel" so to speak - makes the process of negotiating the activity smoother. "Fairness" as such should be an emergent property of negotiations, after all. If one human/monkey sees that another is getting more reward in a cooperative activity for the same work, this violates its natural drive to minimize effort. Since it sees that greater reward is possible, it may withhold service until it gets the best available (as far as it knows) reward. A couple of rounds of this and something like "equal pay for equal work" should emerge, no? If that's true, then any "fairness instict" would be merely facilitory in nature. It saves a species the trouble of having to relearn this maxim through experience at each generation.

Evolution is a slow and messy process. Adding a "fairness" instinct might have been a good idea in the bush when cooperative activities were simple and everyone was roughly equally capable of contributing. Life in civilization, however, is more complex by an order of magnitude. In the considerably messier world of the global economy (or even a nation- or city-sized economy), it turns out that circumstances aren't (and can't be) as controlled. Partly it's because the wider variety of types of and opportunities for cooperative activity highlight individual differences that are much more subtle than those that can be seen in small tribes. But also, and more relevant to questions of "fairness" and "equality," because some kinds of information travel faster verbally than in terms of money. Economies are ultimately instantiated on the local level: individual people trading their individual goods and services. Circumstances at one time and in one place are simply such that they result in a lesser wage for some job than they would have had slightly different circumstances obtained - as, say, they did in the neighboring community. On a "macro" level, the fact that people in one town are earning more than those in another for comparable amounts of work may seem unfair. And on some level, I suppose, it is. But this information isn't actually encoded in the economic system at the time wages are negotiated. It only comes to light later. Once it comes to light, of course, the people earning less will want to negotiate for higher pay - but circumstances aren't guaranteed to allow it.

If there is a fairness instinct over and above a simple emergent property of systems of negotiation/cooperation, we have a good explanation for why Socialism retains persuasive force for people despite over a century of being repeatedly discredited in practice. The juices in our brains require merely that similar people in similar circumstances get similar rewards. That the circumstances in question may, in fact, not be similar is obscured by the use of language to describe the situation. Thanks to the media and such, people can talk to each other as though they were members of the same community, filtering out any (seemingly insignificant) details that differentiate their situations. They may, in fact, not be members of the same community - at least as far as the economic activity in question is concerned. The fairness instinct demands a global application that may simply not be feasible in societies significantly larger and more complicated than 100-member tribes. Socialism is the attempt to sort out everything by force so that it comes out even in the global sense that the fairness instinct demands. Or, at least, that's one possible explanation for it. That reality on the ground is not always amenable to these global solutions is one of the reasons why Socialism has yet to poll a sustainable success story. Going further, it may also explain why such limited successes as Socialist systems have had are universally in the developmental stages of economies - that is, the stages where the economy is not yet sufficiently diverse and wealthy for serious conflicts between the planning and the situation "on the ground" to manifest themselves. Starting from scratch, it is indeed possible to plan an economy - for a time. And so South Korea and the Soviet Union did well while "industrializing." The success begins to evaporate, however, in later stages, as the sheer amount of economic activity brought on by the accumulated wealth becomes - literally - unmanagable on any global level. One of the popular explanations for what caused the Soviet collapse in the late 80s - to give an example - is Gorbachev's decision to try to wean the Russians off of alcohol. Leaving aside the cultural stupidity of such an undertaking (no nation of people on Earth loves alcohol more than the Russians) - the explanation goes that the planners simply didn't appreciate how the alcohol industry had come to be infused with the economy. In the early days - the 20s and 30s - it was arguably possible for the central government to make a decision to shut an industry and have it carried out (that Stalin made some historically well-documented horrible decisions doesn't necessarily undermine the case for planning in general, just the case for letting Stalin be in charge of it) effectively. But this was in the 20s and 30s when Russian industry had nowhere to go but up, and when it was so limited in scope that anticipating the effects of plans was still somewhat feasible. By the 1980s, however, this had become impossible. Gorbachev and the Soviet planners grossly underestimated the effect that artificially raising the price of alcohol, limiting its production and using police to enforce drinking limits would have. A profitable sector of the economy was decimated overnight with repercussions throughout the system. Global planning, after a point, becomes infeasible - and the methods that have to be used to enforce it are anyway immoral. And the global view that tells Gorbachev that "Russia" has a problem with alcoholism is anyway misleading. The truth is that a large percentage of individual Russians have a problem with alcohol. Punishing everyone with arbitrary limits - including those who can handle alcohol in the proscribed quantities, or who sometimes consume those quantities socially and get sick but are otherwise not addicted - may seem "fair" in the sense that the law applies equally to everyone - but the law, in this case, is not equally suitable or applicable to everyone. That's a fact "on the ground" that central planning cannot capture. That an economy is a manipulable thing is largely illusory. Economies and be teased and coddled, maybe, but they cannot be controlled. The "fairness instinct," if it exists, would not have evolved in such a complex social organization. It evolved to deal with manageable groups of 100 or so members.

What works on the larger scale is rational self interest. We recognize a core set of values that we expect all humans to share (life, property, autonomy, etc.) and establish them as inviolable rights. Within that framework, people are responsible for trading labor or the fruits of labor against goods to provide for their own survival and comfort. The complexity of such a system makes it unlikely that everyone will benefit equally. But that same complexity also ensures that everyone who participates will benefit. Of equal importance: the massive redundancy in such a system (multiple food suppliers, multiple housing suppliers, etc.) makes catastrophic failures unlikely.

So is it "fair" that some workers at Starbucks have access to lactation rooms and others do not? Not on the instinctive level, no. The instinct evolution gave us tells us that people we interact with every day should have the same level of material wealth we do. If they get access to a room we don't have, something in our genetic code resents it. But it isn't instinct that got us where we are today. Our capacity for rational and abstract thought - that's what enables us to enjoy material wealth on a scale that no other species can come close to duplicating.

From the standpoint of rational self-interest, this "lactation room gap" is plenty fair. Starbucks hired each of the people at the branch individually. If one of the individuals behind the counter feels ill-used by not having access to the lactation room, she can try to negotiate a better position for herself. But of course, she'll have to offer something in return that Starbucks can use. Starbucks didn't, after all, build the lactation room at its expense for kicks. It did it to properly reward female managers it values, to keep them from peddling their services elsewhere, as is their right in a free economy. Anyone who wants to use the lactation room first has to make it worth Starbucks' while. And that involves selling something more valuable (like managerial skills) than the ability to pour coffee - which pretty much anyone can do satisfactorily. It is "fair" in the same sense that it is "fair" that Starbucks charges for their coffee. They made it, after all, and provided the public with the opportunity to buy it - an opportunity that wouldn't exist without coffee chain stores. If you want their coffee and don't mind their price, they are willing to sell it to you. If you don't want it or don't like the price, no one compels you to buy it. Likewise, if you think you deserve a lactation chamber as part of your renumeration, you have to meet the price that Starbucks sets for it. They made it possible, after all - not you. There is nothing whatever "unfair" about this arrangement. What would be "unfair" would be to force Starbucks to produce lactation chambers at the point of a gun for people who are unwilling to do anything more for Starbucks in return than pour coffee.

When thinking about the price of equality, I often remember this great line from an equally great speech given in 1982 by the 20th Century's greatest American president:

The dimensions of [the Soviet] failure are astounding: A country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people.

This is what dogged pursuit of equality buys. Surely it is better to live in a country where everyone has the opportunity to feed, clothe, and house themselves and do it comfortably, even if it means not all houses are the same size.


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