Seeking Fairness and Justice

Mark Pottenger


This is a mixture of economics, philosophy, and politics.

Reminders that "life is not fair" are frequent, and any close look at our own society certainly proves the assertion. I will attempt here to explore some of the reasons why and possible changes to make our lives more fair and just.

The U. S. Constitution starts: "We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

I'm not sure people pay enough attention to the "a more perfect Union" part. Perfection is an end state—once something is perfect, it can't become more perfect. This means that "more perfect" is really saying "closer to perfect", recognizing that the Union (United States of America) was not perfect and could be improved. There have been 26 Amendments to that Constitution, each striving to make the Union more perfect, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The original (1516 book) Utopia was derived from ou-topos and meant no place. I am writing about how humans might get closer to a Eutopia (eu-topos or good place). I suspect that U. S. cultural / historical baggage will prevent this country from making many of the changes that would be needed.

Cut and Choose

One of the most clear but stripped-down examples of fairness I can recall reading is a way to fairly divide desserts (or any other desired consumable commodity). One person cuts the pie (or cake or whatever), then everyone else getting a piece gets to take their piece, leaving the last piece for the person who did the cutting. This encourages the cutter to make the pieces as close to equal as they can, since the assumption of universal selfishness would lead them to assume any above-average pieces would be taken before the last piece came to them. There was a recent article about the math for this in Science News.

Too Simplified

Most economic and political theorists focus on a small number of factors and end up creating models and theories that simplify the complexities of reality too much. Many start by assuming that people are rational and will make decisions based on rational thought using all available knowledge. This assumption is flat-out wrong for most people most of the time. Most humans are "rationalizing" beings, not rational beings, making decisions and taking actions due to emotional and unconscious reactions and (sometimes) later trying to find rational arguments to justify them.

We need economic and political theories based on the many, many variations (in different measurement axes) that real people exhibit. Unless a characteristic we think about exists only in one totally unique instance, it will have a range of possible values that will exhibit some statistical distribution. A normal distribution, sometimes called a bell(-shaped) curve, is a common distribution for many characteristics of things in the world. Measured values of characteristics like intelligence, height, etc., are normally distributed. Other characteristics, frequently those determined by a small number of genes like eye or hair or skin color, show other distributions. Every individual manifests a distribution placement on a huge number of attribute/characteristic scales (as many scales as there are characteristics we can measure), producing a unique total picture.

Biological sex can serve as an example of a characteristic ignored in many economic and political theories that assume a model individual is male. Females are the only sex that can get pregnant and bear children, yet few theories say anything about how many things differ because of that. In most cultures, females also do a disproportionate share of raising children and of work around the home. Females still don't get equal pay for equivalent work in most of the world. The extra work around the home that females do is usually unpaid and not counted in comparisons. All too many male religious and political figures issue bulls / proclamations / fatwas and pass laws restricting the rights of females to control their own bodies while screaming about their own (male) rights to self-determination.

A few of the many models / theories / tests / disciplines that provide descriptions of aspects of human nature include acceptance and commitment therapy, analytical psychology (Jungian analysis), astrology, cognitive behavioral therapy, Comrey Personality Scales (CPS), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Emotional Quotient (EQ), Five Factor Model, gestalt therapy, individual psychology, intelligence quotient (IQ), linguistic relativity, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, mindfulness, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), neuro-linguistic programming, Freudian psychoanalysis, qigong, relaxation techniques, Sixteen Personality Factory Questionaire (16PF), tai chi, transcendental meditation, twelve-step programs like AA, and yoga. If you take all the attributes of all of these ways of looking at people, you get a very complex view of people.

The problem with this complexity is getting reliable measurements. Personality tests are built around personality models, but the accuracy of many personality models is pretty iffy. There isn't a single universally accepted model that covers everything. Even when the models are reasonable maps of the real world, successfully describing a person in terms of the model is often a challenge. Issues include subjective data, poor self-knowledge, deliberate deception, and more. Psychology needs to become much more solidly scientific than it currently is to be able to be used (as I think we need) in structuring a society.

I've written a little about the nature of science in other musings such as Trust and Why rational arguments rarely change minds. Sciences can be divided between physical and non-physical (e.g., astronomy and sociology), or experimental and observational (e.g., physics and archaeology). We need better psychology, sociology, and economics. We probably need a single integrated science that includes psychology, sociology, economics, ecology, and I'm not sure what else to work with Native American and other Indigenous worldviews. We need all scientists to be better trained in spotting their own biases. I realize that I am assuming a level of science that does not currently exist as a foundation for a more fair and just society.

Beyond the individual, every person is also a member of many groups, including age cohort, height cohort, weight cohort, BMI cohort, eye color, hair color, income cohort, net worth cohort, birth family, current nuclear family, clan or extended family, tribe, neighborhood, community, city, county, state, nations (citizenship or residence), species, schools (primary, secondary, or college/university, either currently attending or alumni), companies, industries, NGOs, profession, biological sex, cultural gender, ethnicities, race(s), religion, political party, special interest groups, national origin, native language(s), birth culture, players of a sport or game, fans/watchers of a sport or game, branch of the military, people with a shared history, or any other group of people who can be described as having some feature in common.

Reducing all that complexity to simple isolated rational deciders produces really inadequate economic and political theories.

One of the Great Courses I listened to fairly recently was The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas by Laurence Cahoone. It covered several centuries of political thought. The vast majority of the described theories were each built around a single idea about human nature or how economies work or the nature of societies. Only a few of the lectures covered views that even approached the real-world complexities I mention above.


Any political or economic theory must include or assume some system of ethics.

The Categorical Imperative [absolute / unconditional command] formulated by Immanuel Kant is one of the best known deontological (duty or rule-based) ethical principles. The (translated) original version is "Act only according to that maxim whereby[by which] you can at the same time will[urge] that it should become a universal law." In other words, guide your actions by rules that you believe everyone should follow. If there are special conditions, it isn't universal.

The Golden Rule is to treat others as you would like others to treat you, and versions of it exist in most religions, including Ancient Egyptian, Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism.

Utilitarianism prescribes acting to maximize utility / happiness / well-being for everyone affected by your actions.

The Categorical Imperative is about your intentions and Utilitarianism is about the consequences of your actions. The Golden Rule is also about your intentions, but I also see a touch of thinking about consequences in it. The Golden Rule is usually presented in a religious framework, though it also has secular versions. The Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism are both secular, though both can be supported by religious arguments.

The United States is multi-cultural despite some people's claims and efforts, so in imagining possible changes to improve U. S. economics and politics I think the ethical basis should be secular or non-sectarian. I think we can combine the Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism by saying any ethical (or economic or political) rule should be universal, but every ethical (or economic or political) rule should include careful consideration of consequences. The justice as fairness theory of Rawls described in the Cahoone course approaches this using a social contract model instead of the Categorical Imperative. He argued that rational self-interested people with no knowledge of where they would start in society would agree to a social contract that eliminates socioeconomic inequalities that don't benefit the least advantaged. In fact, I think several social contract models could be replaced or simplified by using the Categorical Imperative.

In my reading:

Rule Golden by Damon Knight is a 1954 SF story in which an alien visitor to Earth enforces the Golden Rule.

I thought I remembered a version of the quote "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins." from Coventry, a 1940 libertarian SF story by Robert Heinlein, but didn't spot the quote when I just skimmed the story. An online quote search found that there are several variations of the quote and many attributions of sources. It describes a "harm principle" in ethics, which I would classify as a negative presentation of Utilitarianism.

Liberties and Rights

One of the main functions of governments is to recognize and enforce liberties and rights for people and communities. A little Wiki searching can lead to a host of topics: Civil liberties, Civil and political rights, Negative and positive rights, Negative liberty, Positive liberty, Claim rights and liberty rights, Individual and group rights, Natural rights and legal rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights,and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

To whatever extent the distinction of negative and positive freedoms is valid, negative freedoms are lack of restraints or "freedom from", and positive freedoms are self-determination or "freedom to".

Civil liberties can include freedoms of conscience, the press, religion, expression, assembly, and speech, and rights to security, liberty, privacy, equal treatment by laws, due process, fair trial, vote, life, property, self-defense, marriage, reproductive self-determination, and bodily integrity.

The granting or recognition (depending on your philosophy) and enforcement of liberties and rights is one of the areas that a lot of people grossly oversimplify. Many rights create inherent conflicts between and within people and groups/communities—enforcing one right for one person or group can require limiting another right for a different person or group. E.g., freedom of religion has to be limited if one group's religion threatens the life, liberty, or bodily integrity of any other people.

Too many discussions of liberties and rights focus on individuals in isolation, which would only be valid for sole inhabitants of otherwise deserted islands. I think we must think about liberties and rights of members of a society. This is where competing liberties and rights must be evaluated to establish the rules that anyone residing in that society must follow. This imposes the societally determined ethical rules allowing liberties and rights on the individuals, and "first, do no harm" would be one of the most basic starting points. I think greed, selfishness, authoritarianism, and violence would probably be among the personal traits most likely to run up against limits from societal rules.

U. S. marriage laws are an especially interesting issue. The Bill of Rights in the U. S. Constitution starts with "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", yet most attitudes and laws about marriage reflect an archetypally Judaeo-Christian definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Mormon and other attempts to establish polygamous marriages were thoroughly stomped, despite the First Amendment supposedly creating a wall to separate church from state. I don't know if U. S. law recognizes polygamous marriages formed in countries where they are legal. This is a non-trivial issue, since the U. S. tax code and many other laws grant married people many privileges that unmarried people don't get.

In my reading:

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, a 1966 SF novel set in a penal colony on Earth's Moon, mentions several varieties of marriage, starting with two people and extending up to many people.

Public Goods and Governments

Commons are resources available to all members of a community. A public good is something that benefits a community as a whole or most member of a community, such as basic research, consumer protection, environmental protection (protecting commons: clean air, water, and land), immunization (vaccination) campaigns, infrastructure (roads, bridges, canals, harbors, airports, communication networks, etc.), laws and law enforcement, national defense, national parks, public education, public health systems, universal medical care, or worker protection. Laws include both criminal and civil laws. Civil laws include reliable contracts and property rights and a system for lawsuits, which solve Commitment Problems by making Credible Commitments (believable promises) possible. Walzer pointed out that just distribution of each public good must be determined separately—that no single rule can be applied to distribution of all goods.

Good governments more reliably provide more public goods than bad governments (which can actually provide public bads). Laws are public goods providing consistency & predictability within their scope, but discriminatory enforcement of laws is a public bad. Using a computer analogy to describe governments, you can view a Constitution as an Operating System and individual laws as application software running under that Operating System. Bad governments, like virus-infected computers, provide very untrustworthy working environments. Without an OS and application software, a computer is a useless lump of matter. Without a government, a group of people can evolve in many directions depending on the natures of the people in the group, but a group with too much selfishness and too little empathy is in danger of lives fitting the "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" quote from Hobbes.

Many forms of government have existed through history and in the present. Monarchy concentrates power into one individual. Aristocracy or oligarchy concentrates power into a few individuals. Democracy spreads power among the most people. Democracies can be Parliamentary (executive is a member of legislature) or Presidential (executive is separate from legislature). Direct democracy involves eligible voters directly creating laws, while a republic like the U. S. with elected representatives concentrates power in a few individuals who are supposed to represent the will of the voters who put them in office. The broader the franchise (who can vote) in a country, the better that country is at tending to the interests of more citizens. Enhancing voting rights and preventing voter suppression and gerrymandering (which functionally suppresses the effectiveness of some votes) generally make a country a better place to live.

Unfortunately, the current U. S. looks like a pretty badly decayed democracy—it no longer has the informed electorate that the founders viewed as essential, and many (most?) of the elected representatives do not reflect the will of the voters and act from personal ideology or cater to rich special interests and lobbyists instead. In general, the more power is spread out, the likelier the government is to be better at serving more of the population under that government (because more of the population is involved in putting that government in power and people in power seek to please the people who can keep them there). Despite cultural cliches about the evils of committees, distributed power also reduces the impact of single bad actors in power—ruiners* and people with poor judgment or inadequate knowledge or selfish motives or who are otherwise simply unable to cope with the burdens of a position of power. Notice that ruin is run + I. To much selfish focus can change running a business or public office into ruining it.

Good governments include monitoring & oversight to minimize the ability of bad apples to spoil whole barrels, but all too often overseeing becomes overlooking. This problem was recognized at least as long ago as during the Roman Empire. The Latin phrase "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" translates to "who will guard the guards themselves?" or "who will watch the watchers?". This is one of many places that I think a good government will have to include people's natures in defining eligibility for offices. Monitors must be people whose character includes good alertness, diligence, and integrity, and who have no conflicts of interest. Hen-house watchers must be vegetarians, not foxes.

Global public goods

Global public goods are beyond the sovereignty of any single nation. They include treaties and regulatory systems that promote economic stability, standards for products and processes, anti-piracy efforts, and more.

*In my reading:

The Scroll of Man, a 1985 SF novel by John Dalmas, is where I learned the concept of a ruiner—a person who causes harm proportional to their power. Everything they do is bad for other people, so if they are in a position of power they harm a lot of people.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs starts with deficit (survival) needs as the base that must be satisfied before we are able to pay attention to any other needs. It starts with physiological needs, including Air, Water, Food, Heat, Clothes, Urination, Excretion, Shelter, and Sleep. The next step up are safety needs, including Health, Personal security, Emotional security, and Financial security. In Maslow's hierarchy the next steps up are still called needs, but I think a lot of people would call them wants or desires instead.

I think a discussion of Fairness and Justice should use the hierarchy of needs to help create rules.

Rule 1: No laws may be passed that would benefit any residents beyond deficit needs at the expense of leaving other residents with unmet deficit needs, and government resources should go to public goods that help satisfy the deficit (physiological and safety) needs of all residents before they go to any public goods that help satisfy aesthetic or other higher-level desires. (I think this rule follows my description above of a combined ethical standard. Applying this rule would, among other things, immediately remove all tax breaks for the wealthy.)

As many people have pointed out, the U. S. needs wealth taxes and inheritance taxes in addition to ending tax breaks to restore some of the economic balance lost in the last several decades and bring the country back to the founders' ideals of a country without an aristocracy.

In my reading:

The Shockwave Rider, a 1975 novel by John Brunner, ends with a national direct vote about resource allocation and the societal value of (and therefore tax rates on) different kinds of work.

Years ago I read several Mack Reynolds novels, I think from the 1970s, that featured Negative Income Tax or Universal Guaranteed Income.


In political discussions, many people talk about rights, but I think it is also important to talk about responsibilities. Discussions of responsibilities can focus on the past (consequences of actions already taken) or the future (duty to act or authority / power in a sphere of action). Everyone in a country (or state or county or city) who benefits from any public goods created by the government of that region has a responsibility to pay their fair share of the taxes that support that government and to vote in every election they can. Attitudes about responsibility are one of the many dimensions of character that I mentioned above. The main polarity is between the Blamer (who thinks and says that everything that happens is always the fault of someone or something else) and the Owner (who takes responsibility for their own actions and any consequences they produce). I think most people are probably consistent in their placement on this scale, but it is possible to be at different points on the scale in different parts of your life, such as home life and work life. A few other ways of thinking and talking about responsibility in addition to the basic Blamer/Owner axis are the Aimer (intends to accept a responsibility but doesn't follow through), Claimer (falsely claims responsibility for a good result), Declaimer / Flamer (orates / rants about the importance of responsibilities or failures to accept responsibility), Exclaimer (marvels about a responsibility someone accepted), Framer (falsely says a specific other person bears responsibility for a bad result), Gamer (tries to trick someone into claiming a responsibility that isn't theirs), Namer (says a specific other person bears a responsibility), Reclaimer (accepts a responsibility after initially denying it), Reframer (changes the emphasis in a discussion of responsibilities from a focus on duties to a focus on rewards), and Shamer (tries to shame someone into accepting a responsibility [to act in the future or for action in the past]).

When actions produce or inaction produces bad results (harms), responsibility can become liability. An owner accepts their liability for the consequences of their bad choices as well as credit for the consequences of their good choices. A Claimer takes credit for good results that were not a consequence of their actions, e.g., GOP politicians touting the benefits of infrastructure projects they voted against funding.

This gets into another long drift in a bad direction in the U. S. For the first century of U. S. history, the modern acceptance of corporate personhood did not exist, and I think the modern acceptance is a major mistake that needs to be corrected. Corporations are not people—people run corporations. An LLC (limited liability corporation) or Inc. (incorporated) label designates a thing, not a person, and that thing can't ever take responsibility and should not be assigned any of the rights we grant a person. This is an area of pervasive sloppy language. News stories and other common speech and writing routinely say a corporation chose or said or did something, when it is always some person in the corporation that actually chose or said or did it. I think the corporate limitations of liability should be limited to the financial liability of investors, and the responsible people in corporations should be held personally liable for harms (consequences, including deaths, injuries, pollution, etc.) that result from corporate actions due to their decisions.

This also leads to a current hot topic: AI. Can an Artificial Intelligence take responsibility for its actions? If it can, does that mean it can be liable and subject to punishment like a person? Does that mean it can have rights like a person? I don't think current AIs have reached that point, but I am definitely not an expert in this field.

In my reading:

Metis' Wisdom, a 2023 SF novel by Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett, has a trial involving an AI. A key point in the trial is "She takes responsibility. She is a person."

Tests for public office

Another aspect of responsibility is that there should be personality tests to qualify for public office. This is explicitly for public (government) office: since anyone in government is supposed to be working for the public good, an office-seeker must be capable of recognizing and promoting public goods and avoiding public bads to be eligible for government work. Blamers should not be allowed in responsible positions because they don't take responsibility for their own actions. Owners, who do take responsibility for their own actions, should qualify for responsible positions. And, emphatically, no ruiners should ever be allowed in any public office or other responsible position.

In addition to the huge importance of and variations in ability to take responsibility, people also vary widely in their levels of compassion and empathy. I think any position of power should require minimum thresholds of compassion and empathy and enough intellectual capacity and contact with reality to understand Societal Impact Statements (see below). Ability to recognize reality and not accept conspiracy fantasies is an important character axis for anyone with any real-world responsibilities. The problem with this requirement is the above-mentioned unreliability of current personality testing—psychological science (or some future combined psycho-social sciences) would need to advance well beyond our current level to be a useful foundation of a society.

Another personality requirement for public office should check where a person falls on a public servant vs. power-seeker axis. Pure public service attitudes may be hard to find, but the absolute minimum requirement for public office should be more public service motivation than power-seeking motivation.

Another personality requirement for public office should check for ability to compromise vs. extreme ideology and rigidity. Government for all the people in a nation requires compromise—there are simply too many competing requirements to avoid it. Rigid extremism has no place in a good government.

A belief-system (worldview) requirement for public office must test whether a person believes in government at all. Anyone who thinks government is a problem rather than a solution will never govern well and does not belong in any public office.

Impact Statements

We already have Environmental Impact Statements in many areas. I think a good government needs a greatly expanded system to evaluate Societal Impacts. The current U. S. Federal Register has a tiny first step in that direction when regulations list an estimated burden of people's time. The kind of Societal Impact Statements I'm imagining would list all the geographical areas, governments, businesses, groups, and people that a new or revised law or regulation would effect and list how each would be affected (both positive and negative effects). If legislators or regulators don't know what the impact would be, the law or regulation should require facts to be collected to evaluate the impact and terminate or revise the law or regulation if it does more net harm to society than good.

In addition to determining the Societal Impact of new laws and regulations, we need regular collection of new facts to determine the Societal Impact of existing (old) laws and regulations. If a changing world has made a once-beneficial law or regulation harmful, that law or regulation needs to be revised or repealed. U. S. Census data is collected every 10 years (actually, some census data is collected between the big 10-year pushes). Evaluations every 10 years might be a good cycle for laws and regulations.

Responsible Speech

As important as Free Speech is to Americans, I think a good society needs to place equal emphasis on Responsible Speech, which considers the possible impact of any speech before uttering it. A classic example is knowing to not yell "Fire!" in a crowded room with limited exits. We would need major legal changes to start enforcing Responsible Speech in the U. S. One possibility could be to fine people or businesses all their income from each day they utter lies that harm public interests or damage public goods. If they persist and repeat already-identified lies, escalate the fines. Open up civil suits if the harm of lies isn't to public goods or governments, but with safeguards against spurious suits.


People respond to incentives. Economists refer to perverse incentives when describing the reasons for some bad choices. One of the functions of a good government is to create laws and regulations that provide good incentives.

Voting provides an example. A huge percentage of eligible voters in Australia vote in every election. In contrast to the U. S., Australia has compulsory voting and incentives to vote (fines if someone eligible to vote doesn't vote).

Capitalism could be hugely improved by regulatory incentives for businesses to pay a living wage.

In my reading:

Philosopher's Stone, a 1963 SF short story by Christopher Anvil, showed how the right incentives can increase a country's innovation and prosperity. The key incentive in the story was that British nobles had to bring useful innovations to widespread success to keep their titles from decaying over time.

Subspace Explorers, a 1965 SF novel by E. E. "Doc" Smith, has PESI (the Principal of Enlightened Self-Interest) as one of the foundations of a thriving interstellar civilization. Smith's PESI calculates a point at which Capital's net profit, Labor's net income, and public benefit produce maximum good, and uses this basis to set prices and wages. Unfortunately, we don't actually have businesses using a quantified PESI formula. The sort of enlightened self-interest currently around is just the much looser idea of "doing well by doing good".

Capitalism and Ethics

Capitalism is an engine of much modern prosperity, but when unrestrained by laws, regulations, and cultural values it is also a source of much modern inequality and misery.

Capitalism has no inherent ethics. Adam Smith's famous "invisible hand" notion that expected societal good to come from personal selfishness was a severe case of theistic wishful thinking. I suspect he grossly underestimated how selfish some people can be.

The U. S. really needs a deep change in cultural values. Somewhere along the way large numbers of people have accepted the highly suspect assumption that money is more important than people. Anyone operating on that basis has to be restrained for the good of the people in their sphere of influence.

Regulations impose morals on inherently amoral businesses just as social norms and laws impose them on the people whose natures do not include strong enough personal ethics to be good members of a society. We also must recall (see Responsibility above) that businesses do not make decisions—the people running businesses make decisions, so the ethics that businesses display are actually the ethics of those people.

Some restraints that I think are needed include:

Enforced minimum wage laws and laws to prevent wage theft (vacation, sick time, overtime, meal time, break time, and tip distribution practices that prevent workers from getting paid for true time worked). Taken all the way, a business should be taxed or fined dollar-for-dollar for all legitimate earnings that they keep from workers so that the government can then pay that money to the cheated workers.

Limits on executive compensation so it can't exceed a SMALL multiple of the pay of the lowest-paid worker (maximum wage laws to go with minimum wage laws). See PESI above.

Enforced payment for externalities (costs to third parties from business activities, including public bads such as pollution). Businesses should be taxed or fined dollar-for-dollar for all public bads that their business activities contribute to and credited for contributions to public goods, forcing business pricing closer to true costs.

Stringent and strongly enforced environmental protection laws.

Enforced safety laws. Worker safety laws to protect workers from heat, cold, dangerous machinery, repetitive stress injuries, harmful patterns of working hours (too many or too irregular), etc. Product safety laws to prevent businesses from making things that hurt or kill people or do other damage (or at least reduce the amount of damage). Staffing level laws for services or patient/client/customer care to reduce the number of people hurt by mistakes caused by burdening employees with more work than they can handle safely. (Pharmacy errors due to understaffed drugstores have been in the news lately.)


Trade is essential for economies to prosper. Centuries ago most countries used tariffs and other barriers to international trade to protect domestic industries. Many modern countries idealize Free Trade to varying degrees. I think, as with many other things, that the best kind of trade falls between the extremes: Fair Trade or Ethical Trade. This opens a country's markets to goods and services from other countries, but only if those countries have laws or regulations or cultural norms that protect their workers from exploitation or other harms (such as pollution) and ensure that their workers get a living wage.

Mind control

The quote "Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man." is attributed to multiple sources, but I first heard it described as from the Catholic Church. I discussed how people cling to early beliefs in Why rational arguments rarely change minds.

Book banning & other attempts to control knowledge are variations on the same principle. The would-be book-banners want to control the knowledge people are exposed to in an attempt to force everyone into the straitjacket of their own beliefs. Far too much ownership and control of media in the U. S. is in the hands of anti-democratic people, reducing the amount of reliable information available to the electorate.

Equal opportunity

Equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome, is a goal of cultures striving to be fair and just. This means removing historical / existing barriers to equal opportunity such as systematic racism.

This quickly gets complicated. The many-dimensional complexity of people (see above: Too Simplified) makes this a challenge.

How much weight must be assigned for race and ethnicity, especially any need to make reparations for past mistreatment? The U. S. history of African Americans includes slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and many other harms from before the founding of the country to the present. The U. S. history of Native Americans includes many broken treaties, attempted genocide, attempted cultural erasure, theft of lands, and more. The U. S. history of Chinese Americans includes years of immigrant labor, discriminatory restrictive laws, and more. The U. S. history of Hispanic Americans includes years of immigrant (especially farm) labor, language barriers, and more. The U. S. history of Japanese Americans includes the World War II internment camps, and more. The U. S. history of Jewish Americans includes immigration barriers, antisemitism, and more. All groups present before the mainstream Anglo-European culture and all groups that have immigrated since the founding of the country have faced barriers to naturalization and citizenship, and most have faced racial and linguistic and religious prejudices. It is unrealistic to claim that policies and practices that ignore all this bad history are fair and just, and this is just one attribute for each of the people affected.

Looking at only one attribute is trying to force people to fit a Procrustean Bed, which isn't good for anyone.

Most prejudices reduce people to a single attribute and ignore hundreds or thousands of their other attributes that give a more complete view of a person. Most policies and procedures that try to ignore the full complexity of real people fail to be fair or just. Unfortunately, most people have a hard time dealing with much complexity, so it is hard to create complex policies and procedures that are also practical to implement. This is an area where AI technology might actually be useful, but getting the big data current AI technology needs to work would be a huge problem due to human desires for privacy. It might be accomplished by emphasizing that businesses are already harvesting huge amounts of personal data that we would like to be private and assembling masses of big data, so re-purposing that big data to serve public goods would be a good use.


Overpopulation is a root cause of many public bads, especially environmental issues including climate change and pollution. There are natural reductions in birthrate as societies change from subsistence agriculture to industry and as populations get more education, but countering those are evolutionary drives to procreate and religions with belief systems established when the world population was a small fraction of what it is now. For humans to survive we need incentives that work to curb population. One possibility might be free and easily available contraception (all forms of birth control). Another might be child tax credits that cease after 1 or 2 children.

Unfortunately, reducing population growth introduces other problems. Most developed economies are structured around assumptions of continual growth. The U. S. Social Security and Medicare systems rely on having enough younger workers to support retired workers, and slowing growth changes the demographic balance of age cohorts. Several countries that have successfully slowed their population growth are now dealing with problems due to aging populations. I don't know what solutions to demographic problems will be invented around the world in years to come.


To sum up, I believe that the complexity of human nature requires a large amount of government using a large amount of scientifically verified knowledge to produce a fair and just society. I don't think this can happen quickly because our social sciences are not yet at the level needed to provide that knowledge. I would like to see the start of character testing for public office despite the limitations of current science, because weeding out people who simply should not be in government would be a huge step forward. I think current U. S. culture has gone badly astray through unrestrained capitalism (which is amoral until ethical rules are imposed on it) and tax codes and other laws entrenching a privileged class. I believe some of the social democracies in Europe are much closer to fair and just societies than the U. S. is. I hope modern activists seeking to promote social justice succeed in improving fairness in the U. S. and other cultures around the world just as reactions to the age of robber barons in the 1800s helped lead to Progressive politics.

Copyright © 2023 Mark Pottenger

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