Tag: Kantian Fairness Tendency

The Pursuit of Fairness

As James Surowiecki illustrates in an excellent piece in the New Yorker, the pursuit of perfect fairness causes a lot of terrible problems in system function.

Surowiecki calls this The Fairness Trap:

…Rationally, then, this standoff should end with a compromise—relaxing some austerity measures, and giving Greece a little more aid and time to reform. And we may still end up there. But the catch is that Europe isn’t arguing just about what the most sensible economic policy is. It’s arguing about what is fair. German voters and politicians think it’s unfair to ask Germany to continue to foot the bill for countries that lived beyond their means and piled up huge debts they can’t repay. They think it’s unfair to expect Germany to make an open-ended commitment to support these countries in the absence of meaningful reform. But Greek voters are equally certain that it’s unfair for them to suffer years of slim government budgets and high unemployment in order to repay foreign banks and richer northern neighbors, which have reaped outsized benefits from closer European integration. The grievances aren’t unreasonable, on either side, but the focus on fairness, by making it harder to reach any kind of agreement at all, could prove disastrous.

The basic problem is that we care so much about fairness that we are often willing to sacrifice economic well-being to enforce it. Behavioral economists have shown that a sizable percentage of people are willing to pay real money to punish people who are taking from a common pot but not contributing to it. Just to insure that shirkers get what they deserve, we are prepared to make ourselves poorer. Similarly, a famous experiment known as the ultimatum game—one person offers another a cut of a sum of money and the second person decides whether or not to accept—shows that people will walk away from free money if they feel that an offer is unfair. Thus, even when there’s a solution that would leave everyone better off, a fixation on fairness can make agreement impossible.

You can see this in the way the U.S. has dealt with the foreclosure crisis. Plenty of economists recommended giving mortgage relief to underwater homeowners, but that has not happened on any meaningful scale, in part because so many voters see it as unfair to those who are still obediently paying their mortgages. Mortgage relief would almost certainly have helped all homeowners, not just underwater ones—by limiting the spillover impact of foreclosures on house prices—but, still, the idea that some people would be getting something for nothing irritated voters.

The fairness problem is exacerbated by the fact that our definition of what counts as fair typically reflects what the economists Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein call a “self-serving bias.” You’d think that the Greeks’ resentment of austerity might be attenuated by the recognition of how much money Germany has already paid and how much damage was done by rampant Greek tax dodging. Or Germans might acknowledge that their devotion to low inflation makes it much harder for struggling economies like Greece to start growing again. Instead, the self-serving bias leads us to define fairness in ways that redound to our benefit, and to discount information that might conflict with our perspective. This effect is even more pronounced when bargainers don’t feel that they are part of the same community—a phenomenon that psychologists call “social distance.” The pervasive rhetoric that frames the conflict in terms of national stereotypes—hardworking, frugal Germans versus frivolous, corrupt Greeks, or tightfisted, imperialistic Germans versus freewheeling, independent Greeks—makes it all the more difficult to reach a reasonable compromise.

From the perspective of society as a whole, concern with fairness has all kinds of benefits: it limits exploitation, promotes meritocracy, and motivates workers. But in a negotiation where neither side can have what it really wants, and where the least bad solution is as good as it gets, worrying too much about fairness can be suicidal. To move Europe away from the brink, voters and politicians on all sides need to stop asking themselves what’s fair and start asking themselves what’s possible.

It is more important to have the right system in place than perfect fairness to the individual. The argument here is one of moral hazard and incentives. If you don’t punish Greece, you foster a system where it’s ok to default once in a while. This idea will spread to other countries.

In Steven Sample’s excellent book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, he talks about the law of a higher good, which he took from Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Let me clarify the most fundamental misunderstanding. Machiavelli was not an immoral or even an amoral man; as mentioned earlier, he had a strong set of moral principles. But he was driven by the notion of a higher good: an orderly state in which citizens can move about at will, conduct business, safeguard their families and possessions, and be free of foreign intervention or domination. Anything which could harm this higher good, Machiavelli argued, must be opposed vigorously and ruthlessly. Failure to do so out of either weakness or kindness was condemned by Machiavelli as being contrary to the interests of the state, just as it would be contrary to the interests of a patient for his surgeon to refuse to perform a needed operation out of fear that doing so would inflict pain on the patient.

Still curious? Add The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership and The Prince to your reading list.

Kantian Fairness Tendency: The World Isn’t Fair

The Kantian Fairness Tendency refers to the pursuit of perfect fairness which causes a lot of terrible problems. Stop expecting the world to be fair and adjust your behavior accordingly.

To learn about this mental model we turn to Charlie Munger, who mentioned it twice.

First in this UCCB talk entitled Academic Economics — Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs where he said:

It is not always recognized that, to function best, morality should sometimes appear unfair, like most worldly outcomes. The craving for perfect fairness causes a lot of terrible problems in system function. Some systems should be made deliberately unfair to individuals because they’ll be fairer on average for all of us. I frequently cite the example of having your career over, in the Navy, if your ship goes aground, even if it wasn’t your fault. I say the lack of justice for the one guy that wasn’t at fault is way more than made up by a greater justice for everybody when every captain of a ship always sweats blood to make sure the ship doesn’t go aground. Tolerating a little unfairness to some to get a greater fairness for all is a model I recommend to all of you. But again, I wouldn’t put it in your assigned college work if you want to be graded well, particularly in a modern law school wherein there is usually an over-love of fairness-seeking process.

The second time was in his essay entitled: The Psychology of Human Misjudgment:

Kant was famous for his “categorical imperative,” a sort of a “golden rule” that required humans to follow those behavior patterns that, if followed by all others, would make the surrounding human system work best for everybody. And it is not too much to say that modern acculturated man displays, and expects from others, a lot of fairness as thus defined by Kant.

In a small community having a one-way bridge or tunnel for autos, it is the norm in the United States to see a lot of reciprocal courtesy, despite the absence of signs or signals. And many freeway drivers, including myself, will often let other drivers come in front of them, in lane changes or the like, because that is the courtesy they desire when roles are reversed. Moreover, there is, in modern human culture, a lot of courteous lining up by strangers so that all are served on a “firstcome-first-served” basis.

Also, strangers often voluntarily share equally in unexpected, unearned good and bad fortune. And, as an obverse consequence of such “fair-sharing” conduct, much reactive hostility occurs when fairsharing is expected yet not provided. It is interesting how the world’s slavery was pretty well abolished during the last three centuries after being tolerated for a great many previous centuries during which it coexisted with the world’s major religions. My guess is that Kantian Fairness Tendency was a major contributor to this result.

* * *

Professor Sanjay Bakshi makes a connection between the Kantian Fairness Tendency and the “law of the higher good” in reference to Machiavelli’s famous book The Prince. Bakshi said this to his students:

Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is a great book and should be made compulsory reading for all MBA students.

To many people, The Prince is an evil book. But Joseph L. Badaracco, who teaches a hugely popular course titled “The Moral Leader” at the Harvard Business School uses this book to teach ethics. And he teaches ethics by telling students to follow Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince.

In an interview, Badaracco has said that four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in classroom discussions of The Prince at HBS:

Version 1 : “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It’s “a scholar’s dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2 : “Now wait a minute. There’s some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs… To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3 : Other students believe the book is still around because it’s so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it’s quite interesting what isn’t in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There’s nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You’re out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4 : “A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco’s mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it’s not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you’re going to make progress in the world you’ve got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.” Students who claim the fourth Prince, Badaracco said, believe that if they’re going to make a difference, it’s got to be in this world, “and not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”

One of my favourite mental models comes from The Prince. I call this model, the “law of the higher good“. Before I read The Prince, I read an excellent book called, “The Contrarian Guide to Leadership” by Steven Sample. In this book, which was recommended by Mr. Munger, Sample’s thoughts on the law of the higher good from The Prince resonated very well with what Mr. Munger has been advocating for years.

I reproduce here an extract from Sample’s book which deals with the law of the higher good:

“Let me clarify the most fundamental misunderstanding. Machiavelli was not an immoral or even an amoral man; as mentioned earlier, he had a strong set of moral principles. But he was driven by the notion of a higher good: an orderly state in which citizens can move about at will, conduct business, safeguard their families and possessions, and be free of foreign intervention or domination. Anything which could harm this higher good, Machiavelli argued, must be opposed vigorously and ruthlessly. Failure to do so out of either weakness or kindness was condemned by Machiavelli as being contrary to the interests of the state, just as it would be contrary to the interests of a patient for his surgeon to refuse to perform a needed operation out of fear that doing so would inflict pain on the patient.”

The law of the higher good is a terribly useful model for leaders because it forces them to think about things from a totally different perspective.

Here’s a hypothetical situation to ponder about:

You are in charge of running a retail store and one of your cashiers, an elderly woman, is caught committing a minor embezzlement. Fearing that she might be dismissed, she approaches you to plead forgiveness. She tells you that this is the first time she embezzled money from the company and promises that she’ll never do it again. She tells you about her sad situation, namely that her husband is very ill and that she was going to use the money to buy medicines for him. She becomes extremely emotional and your heart is melting. What do you do?

Something similar to the above situation was described by Mr. Munger in a talk given by him. He used two models to produce his answer. The first model was probability. Mr. Munger implores you to reduce the problem to the mathematics of Fermat/Pascal by asking the question: How likely is it that the old woman’s statement, “I’ve never done it before, I’ll never do it again” is true?

Note that this question has nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances in this particular instance of embezzlement. Rather, Munger is relying on his knowledge of the theory of probability. He asks: “If you found 10 embezzlements in a year, how many of them are likely to be first offences?”

The possible actions are: (1) She is lying and you fire her (good outcome – because it cures the problem and sends the right signals); (2) She is telling the truth and you fire her (bad outcome for her but good outcome for system integrity); (3) She is lying and you pardon her (bad outcome for system integrity); and (4) She is telling the truth and you pardon her (bad outcome for system integrity because it will send the wrong signal that its ok to embezzle once).

Weighed with probabilities, and after considering signalling effects of your actions on other people’s incentives and its effect on system integrity, its clear that the woman should be fired.

Looked this way, this is not a legal problem or an ethical problem. Its an arithmetical problem with a simple solution. This extreme reductionism of practical problems to a fundamental discipline (in this case mathematics), is, of course, the hallmark of the Munger way of thinking and living.

So, from a leader’s perspective, it’s more important to have the right systems with the right incentives in place, rather than trying to be fair to one person – even if that person is the leader or someone close to the leader.

The logic is that leaders must look at such situations from their civilization’s point of view rather than the viewpoint of an individual. If we create systems which encourage embezzlements, or tolerate such systems, we’ll ruin our civilization. If we don’t punish the woman, the idea that its ok to do minor embezzlement once in a while, will spread because of incentive effects, and social proof (everyone’s doing it so its ok). And we cannot let that idea spread because that will ruin our civilization. Its that simple.

Kantian Fairness is part of the Farnam Street latticework of Mental Models.

This is a World of Incentives

I thought Warren Buffett said a lot of interesting things in his recent interview with Charlie Rose.

Here are some of the bits that stood out for me.

Fairness:

BUFFETT: …I also think fairness is important and I think getting rid of promises that you can’t keep is important. I don’t think we should cut spending dramatically now. I don’t think that what I’m talking about on taxes solves the — the deficit gap at all. But I think fairness is important. I think having a sensible long-term plan is important to explain and I think having it be believable is terribly important because people don’t believe these out year things generally with Congress. They see too much of what’s happened.

The deficit as stimulus

BUFFETT: The deficit is our stimulus. You can — you can say a bridge someplace is part of that act, you can say cutting taxes is part of it as was the case in our stimulus act. But the stimulus is the government pouring more money out than it’s taking in. And we have a — a stimulus going on that’s 10 percent of GDP which we haven’t seen since World War II. So we have a huge stimulus going on. Nobody wants to call it a stimulus because that’s gotten to be a dirty word. But we have a big stimulus. So we do — in my view, whether we have a 10 percent of GDP deficit —

ROSE: Right.

BUFFETT: — which is a huge stimulus or a 12 percent or eight percent it doesn’t make much difference. I — I think that we pushed monetary policy to a level, we’ve pushed fiscal policy to the limit but fortunately the most important thing in terms of this country ever coming out of recessions has been the natural workings of capitalism and I think you’ve seen that for the last couple of years.

Following through

BUFFETT: What our leaders were saying to us then, the key players are saying we’ll do whatever it takes. And I believed it. I knew they had the power to do whatever it took and I believed they would do it.

Now, the problem about government now is that if they come out and get on the Sunday talks shows and say “I’ll do whatever it takes”, you know, people don’t believe them. And I mean, they — they — they’ve got to see action and — and here they see something like the raising the deficit limit used as a hostage for something of vital importance to the United States. And if you — you can use it as a hostage in terms of spending, you can use it as a hostage on funding on education or anything else. I mean, it isn’t limited about it; if you’ve got something that comes up like it.

Incentives

BUFFETT: But I just use it to illustrate that this is a world of incentives and we work on incentives in every way. If we work on education, in business, every other place. And what I try to think of the incentives to get somebody who comes up for re-election in a year to do something where the policy cycle goes out five years or ten years, how do you do it when the policy cycle exceeds the electoral cycle? You’ve got to make sure the electoral cycle is in the equation.

Niccolò Machiavelli and the Four Princes of Pragmatism

To top off the course The Moral Leader, Professor Badaracco’s students dissect Niccolo Machiavelli’s chilling classic The Prince.

“You may think that’s an odd place to end what is essentially a business ethics elective,” Badaracco acknowledged with a smile.

Students talk about what Machiavelli has to say on one crucial key to leadership: leading in the world as it is.

Four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in their discussion—though there are at least a hundred different readings of Machiavelli for scholars who truly delve into the literature, Badaracco points out.

Version 1: “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It’s “a scholar’s dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2: “Now wait a minute. There’s some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. … To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3: Other students believe the book is still around because it’s so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it’s quite interesting what isn’t in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There’s nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You’re out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4: A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco’s mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it’s not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you’re going to make progress in the world you’ve got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.”

Students who claim the fourth Prince, he said, believe that if they’re going to make a difference, it’s got to be in that world, “not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”
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