January 17, 2009

Economics, part IX: Fair

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

One of my mantras is "when in doubt, question the question." And so I was on my way to pick up some new contacts the other day when a thought struck me: why does it matter whose fault any of this is? The economy, the war, whatever - why does it matter who gets the blame? Then I began asking myself why this particular idea suddenly struck me as odd. I mean, I've lived with it, used it, and been used by it every day of my life; why should the concept of "fair play" strike me as strange?

I think it's because 'fault' or 'blame' makes little difference, practically speaking. Causally, there is no reason to think that there is a connection between the one who causes a problem and the one who fixes (or should fix) it. But in our culture, we use assigned blame as the means to getting a party to enact action - the person who caused the problem should be the one to fix the problem. You probably don't think that's weird, but it's actually somewhat unique to American, or at least Western culture. Let's ask the question - why would we think that a person who screwed something up be any better at fixing it?

For our culture, it's a matter of resources; a person who depleted the resources of another should be the one to deplete some of his or her own resources in compensation. We do this in almost every facet of life: in business, in our judicial system, and even in friendships. How many times have you gotten a gift from somebody and felt like you should get them something in return? It's this weird little quirk of our culture coming back to haunt you.

Back to blame, let's say that a friend comes to my house and, by accident, she knocks an expensive vase off a table. Now, our culture says she ought to replace that; she broke it, or at least, she was the cause of its demise, and so she should be the cause of its restoration. But why ought this be the case? What if she is unable to financially afford this replacement? Our culture tends to dictate that the relationship with this friend will be damaged until she offer some sort of compensation (maybe not over a vase, but let's just overgeneralize to make the point); I will not likely trust my friend as much if I follow this path. But why should this be the case? If my friend cannot afford to rebuild the vase or buy a new one, but I can, does it make sense that I feel as though she owes me?

I think our concept of fairness is built, not just on "she should have to pay for it because that's objectively fair," but on "I don't want to pay for it." We like to pass the blame because it makes us feel better about ourselves - it wasn't OUR fault. I want to restore my sense of self-worth at having lost something; when I blame others, I feel more righteous by comparison. Somebody else has to take care of the problem, and I am freed from any responsibility towards fixing it.

The trouble is, the gospel challenges those assumptions to their very core. If Jesus did in fact die on the cross to take our sin "upon his shoulders" (as they say), and we can do nothing to repay him for it, we are left at an empasse, in an awkward situation. It comes down to this: I can't repay God for what He did, and that bothers me. As an American, I have a hard time accepting a gift unconditionally because I feel like I owe something back. In short, this is a point at which the gospel and American culture part ways, and as a community of Christ-followers living within that culture, then, we have to tread lightly when it comes to addressing this issue in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Ultimately, it's about what we value; if I value the vase, the economics of the situation, then of course "fairness" dictates that I make her replace it, no matter what the subsequent consequences to her; once I get my vase back, the issue is no longer important to me. But if I value the relationship, maybe a whole other set of possibilities rises to the surface. Maybe the vase isn't that important after all and doesn't need to be replaced. Or maybe if it is important to me, I ought to replace it myself instead of holding my friend to something she can't afford. Of course, if she can afford to replace it, she is more than welcome to offer that herself, but it ought to come from a sense of giving rather than a sense of obligation.

The bottom line is, how are we living as an alternate economy? Are we living sacrificially, living in a way that honors and serves our neighbors and values the relationships we have? Are we living in a way that honors Jesus and the way He taught and lived himself? Jesus valued people, he valued relationship; by blaming others instead of assuming responsibility despite cause, we are not enacting the economy of heaven. Taking responsibility for the plight of the Other in spite of who they are, what they did, or why they did it is the mark of a Christian - scripture calls it "love." Life is not and never will be "fair," and anyone who sells visions to the contrary is doing just that: selling something. True good comes when we become servants, when we stop using "fairness" as an excuse not to help others. It means putting aside one's pride and one's sense of "fair play," and instead donning the servant's towel and washing the feet of others.

The best economy only comes when we get our hands dirty in the service of others.

(to be continued ...)


Anonymous said...

People mostly dwell on fault for the purpose of understanding a situation and maybe finding out how to prevent the problem in the future. Bernie Madhoff's $50 billion ponzi scheme is certainly his fault, but the blame can also be laid at the feet of those who decided such hedge funds did not need to be regulated and those investors who did not ask for more transparency. Many lessons can be learned by investigating fault.
As far as fairness goes, your last sentence is well put.
A. Annie

Chris said...

I think I'm trying to make a distinction between "blame/fault" and "causes". If someone is the cause of something, that's different than saying it's their fault; we learn a lot when we see why things happen, how the pot fell off the counter, because we can find out how to prevent it from happening again (or how to do it again, if that was useful). But at the same time, I think a lot of times we USE that to then blame somebody so that we don't have to take action to change whatever that person just caused. And THAT is when "fault" is a real problem.

Jeffrey Rudy: said...

Great post, Chris. I almost sensed that you were alluding to "The Princess Bride" with the whole life isn't fair...anyone who says otherwise is selling something. All it takes is substituting "pain" for "fairness" and you've pretty much got a direct quote. :)