As soon as a toddler can talk, he will start protesting against injustice: “That’s not FAIR!” This sense of fairness is so pervasive I think we are born with it.
According to anthropologist Donald Brown, humans across all times and cultures share certain universal characteristics. For example, human beings resist domination, share food and admire generosity-from Borneo to Beijing to Boston. They also have methods, both individual and collective, for resolving conflicts. Conflicts are inevitable in social groups, social groups are universal and so some method for resolving conflicts, and resolving conflicts fairly, is necessary for survival.
From these obvious truths evolved different sorts of rules and laws, usually with some sort of designated mediators. Justice, or fairness, is so important and so ingrained in us that people are willing to die for it. No justice, no peace. It is the foundation of social relations. The Declaration of Independence is mostly a list of injustices perpetrated against the colonists by the King of England. It is the expression, in eloquent language, of the toddler’s cry, “That’s not fair.” When an earthly authority is not fair, Jefferson argues, there is a higher authority that demands restoration of fairness.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been ridiculed, tear-gassed, and shot with non-lethal, but physically punishing “bean bags” and “rubber bullets.” The injuries from these cute-sounding projectiles are much worse than you would imagine. If a parent inflicted injuries like this on a child, they would go to jail for abuse. Why were they physically punished? Because they said, “That’s not fair.” It is not fair that a few bullies steal our lunches. It is not fair that cheaters scoop up all the marbles and it is not fair that the authorities let them get away with it. It is not fair and it cannot continue. Furthermore, it is not fair to physically punish us for saying it’s not fair. No justice, no peace.
Banksters who are too big to jail is not acceptable; neither is a Justice Department that fails to pursue equal justice. CEO Peter Schiff recently debated Occupy protesters, taking the position that capitalism is good. The protester said, “Greed is not good.” Schiff stated, as if the protester was a fool, “We’re ALL greedy.” No, we are not all greedy. Humans universally admire generosity. We may all be tempted from time to time to be greedy, but we don’t admire it, even after years of propaganda trying to convince us that “Greed is good.” No, greed is not good and injustice is not acceptable.
Fairness, or justice, is vital to the functioning of a society. How can we understand justice? We could study what the great thinkers had to say, we could spend years in a university and become lawyers, even lawmakers. But that doesn’t seem to guarantee that we will understand justice, in fact, it merely limits those who are supposedly the “experts” on justice. A more accessible way to understand justice is to hang out with toddlers.
A toddler’s zeal for justice is evidenced by the cookie-sharing scenario. If two toddlers both want one large cookie, most moms know that the way to avoid conflict is to let one cut the cookie in half and let the other take the first choice of the halves. The first will make the cut with all the precision they can muster while the second will watch keenly and then make their choice. Both toddlers are satisfied with the justice of this procedure. But they are greedy, you might say, they are self-interested. They are self-interested–three year-olds still think they are the center of the universe, but they are not greedy. I have never seen a toddler demand the whole cookie on the basis of the fact that he is the only one who matters. If three year-olds get this intuitively, why are fifty year-old CEOs having so much trouble getting it? Have they believed their own lies: that greed is good?
In my neighborhood tribe of kids we socialized each other. If someone had a bag of chips, we knew we should share, even if we only got five chips each. “Don’t hide it, divide it,” was our rule. No authority made us do this, sharing food is a human universal. In more primitive societies, if a hunter brought a deer back to the tribe and proceeded to eat it all himself, he would not last long in the tribe. Why bring it back at all, why not live as a rugged individual and keep all the meat for himself? He could do that, and he might even survive, but most people don’t think a solitary life, even one overflowing with deer meat, is worth living.
In my kid tribe was a boy named Blaine, who cheated. He would play baseball if his team was at bat and then quit when it was time to go into the outfield. We all protested loudly that he didn’t play fair. We gave him a few more chances to play fair and then we simply never let Blaine play baseball with us again. When he got a bag of chips, he slinked off and ate them all himself. Eventually he stayed inside and read all the time (probably Atlas Shrugged.) He went on to become an investment banker in Boston and can now buy all the chips he wants-and eat them by himself.
For at least thirty years, trickle-down Reaganomics and deregulation have caused increasing income inequality in America. In 2008 the economy crashed, and the crashees-the 99% tribe lost their jobs, their homes, and their credit ratings. The crashers were rewarded. Millions have suffered because a few greedy cheaters stole all the marbles and hoarded all the chips. Regulations are laws. De-regulation means throwing out laws. Throwing out laws means the lawmakers favor Blaine over the rest of the kids. Blaine gets to be up at bat all the time and the rest of the tribe gets to chase the balls he hits but never gets to hit any themselves. The other pet project of the cheaters, Privatization means the authorities give the greedy little Ahole the bat, the ball and even the field we play on. It is not fair. It is not acceptable.
No justice, no peace.
Donald Brown’s Human Universals: