Progress vs Fairness

In my continuing quest to understand people, I have been thinking a lot lately about what the differences are between people who believe in helping lots of people through social programs and people who believe that capitalism is a fair system.  These are obviously simplified statements.

My belief for a long time has been that we need to spend money as a country on helping out people who don’t have options and are stuck in poverty.  I very much continue to believe this.  There a many stories of people who just can’t get out of poverty because things keep going wrong.  This is why we have a safety net.  And people, including me, argue that this safety net is extremely thin and has a ton of holes in it.

Others, it seems, believe in providing tax breaks for the “job creators”, figuring that money will trickle down to those who do the work.  This is sort of like a “rising tide lifts all boats” argument, in that the rich people get richer and the rest of the people gain because of this in some way.

How do you balance the amount of money that is spent on a safety net versus on other things, such as basic science, defense (which you could argue spends a fair bit of money on basic technology advancement), tax breaks, and other programs that help the relatively wealthy in America?

This is a pretty hard question to answer, since, if you don’t spend money on programs that advance our technology, then, by definition, our technological progress grinds to a halt. Since most products like computers, the internet, touch-screen technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other things that we take for granted all of the time derive from basic research, it is hard to imagine the ramifications if we stopped funding these things. But, if we were to invest even more in these new technologies, then people who are suffering would suffer even more.

On a podcast that I listen to, one of the people were talking about how the size of cities helps to determine how much those cities can help to advance the technology and basic improvements in the world.  The other person noted that, while that might be true, larger cities cost a lot more money to live in and basically make it miserable for all of the people who are just trying to make a living. As the city grows, the disparity between the richest and the poorest becomes larger, and the poorest suffer more and more.  So, while the world may benefit, the poorest suffer.

This struck me as profound – in order for our society to actually make progress, there needs to be some way for scientists, businesses and entrepreneurs make it worth their while to put in the massive effort that it takes to invent new technologies, theories, and methods.  These things sometimes helping everyone in the world.

The question really becomes, how do you balance the needs of the poor and needy with the need/desire to continuously progress as a society?  Would we give up searching for cancer treatments if we could give 100,000 people slightly better lives?  How do you draw the line?

In some ways, this is the struggle between democrats and republicans – democrats tend to want to push the line more towards helping people, and argue that you would not give up on too much technological development by doing so, while republicans would like less money to go towards helping people, since technological developments will help all people. The truth is that both sides are probably right, and there needs to be a real balance.



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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3 Responses to Progress vs Fairness

  1. Kate Yemelyanov says:

    I see it a lot more as the difference between capitalism and socialism, where 1/4 of GOP supports oligarchic capitalism, 1/2 of the GOP and 1/3 of dems support capitalism, 1/4 of GOP and 1/3 of dems support 1960’s capitalism, and 1/3 of dems are really socialists who are only now – 25 years after the end of the cold war – comfortable admitting it without fear of being red-baited into the ground.

  2. aaronridley says:

    Yes, I agree with this. It is a very good insight. I guess I would have put myself in the 1/3 of dems that are socialists, until I really started thinking about the need for (technological, biological, etc) progress. While the government does a lot of the heavy lifting in progress, it only gets us so far, and it is the capitalism that takes these ideas and pushes them into everyone’s hands. So, I guess the two have to work together. We can’t spend all of our money helping the poor, but we should spend a bunch of it. And, we can’t hamstring industry, but we can’t let it run rampant. So, the middle is probably a good place. (But, while there are people way over on the right, I will probably take a way over on the left stand…)

    • Kate Yemelyanov says:

      There’s a valuable distinction to be drawn between industry and markets on one hand and capital on the other. Socialism can co-exist with strong industry and market economies. End sermon.

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