There’s an insoluble issue at the center of any consideration of fairness. No matter where you live in the world, chances are that place was previously occupied by a culture different from your own. Chances are almost equally good that your homeland, wherever it is, was taken from its previous occupants by force. The evidence indicates that there are very, very few locations on the planet that have been occupied by only one culture, and there are relatively few convincing stories of peaceful assimilation.
Is the forcible conquest of another culture fair? I think most people would say it is not. However, it is so consistent a theme in human history that attempting to weigh the territorial rights of one culture against another generally leads us into a dialectic quagmire from which the societies cannot extract themselves in less than a couple of centuries, if ever.
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to limit the question of fairness to one generation. Let’s confine our discussion to the means by which we acquired our property from its previous owner, whose name is Bill. We paid him for it. He believes he received a fair price. We agree. We’re friends today. Because I can’t meaningfully address the claims of the several different cultures who lived here before us, the seller and I will call it “fairly acquired” and move on to other areas of concern.
In the background of any discussion of land ownership is, of course, the question of economic disparity. Not everyone can afford to buy a farm like ours. It is not luxurious or glamorous, but it cost more than an average home in Kansas. (It cost a lot less than an average home in Seattle, San Francisco or New York, however.) Is it fair that some people have more money than others? Should we, in the name of fairness, refrain from owning things that an average family might not be able to afford?
Our North American culture’s belief in free enterprise implies a belief in economic mobility. We believe in the potential for economic self-improvement. We see ourselves as industrious people pulling ourselves up by their own bootstraps. Our society still delivers on the promise of that vision. Right now many of the world’s wealthiest individuals – people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison – have accumulated their wealth and power during their own lifetimes. Those three individuals are among the four wealthiest people in the world at the time of this writing. Three out of four of the richest people in the world are Americans who built their fortunes through intelligence, enterprise and hard work during their own lifetimes. Seven out of the world’s 10 richest people are self-made billionaires from four different nations:
- Bill Gates’ father was a Seattle lawyer. His family was affluent, but not wealthy, at least not by American standards. Gates founded Microsoft and helped invent the first widely distributed operating system for personal computers.
- Investor Warren Buffett grew up in Omaha, Nebraska’s, middle class. His grandfather owned a grocery store. His father was a stockbroker who was elected to the U.S. Congress.
- Larry Ellison was born to an unwed mother and raised by an aunt and uncle in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. He dropped out of college to move to California and write software. He founded the database behemoth Oracle.
- Ingvar Kamprad grew up on a farm in southern Sweden and used his childhood savings to start IKEA, the international furniture retailer.
- Karl Albrecht’s father was a miner and then a baker’s assistant in Essen, Germany. Karl and his brother, Theo, founded the international discount grocery chain, Aldi.
- Theo Albrecht is Karl Albrecht’s brother and partner.
- Amancio Ortega began his career as a boy doing odd jobs in shirt stores around La Coruna, Galicia, Spain. He built his fortune in the fashion industry with dozens of international brands. His father was a railway worker.
The other three people in the top 10 inherited their money – only 30 percent of the group. Economic mobility is a visible reality in many places around the world.
When people talk about economic disparity they call forth two contrasting images of fairness. On one side is the question of whether any system can be called fair if it rewards some human beings with mansions and private jets while others do without adequate food. Conversely, would our economic system be fair if it didn’t offer compensation to those who work harder and invent more? And without economic incentives, wouldn’t human beings be less innovative? Aren’t economic disparity – and economic mobility – important sources of energy for human endeavor?
Tacitly, most nations have codified their economic theories based on a compromise incorporating both concepts, while perfecting neither. There are hungry and homeless people in most countries. Nearly every country taxes its wealthiest residents to provide social programs to its neediest, while allowing the wealthy to remain wealthy. No one, it seems, is satisfied with his own country’s system. We are generally even less satisfied with the systems of other countries.
As always, our sense of fairness evolves and changes.
So, is it fair that Carolyn and I should have a farm of our very own? By American standards we are far from wealthy, but we are better off than most. Perhaps the answer to this question from a personal perspective is that, yes, we think we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved in a relatively fair system and we do not feel guilty for living at Rancho Cappuccino. We feel fortunate. We are conscious that many have less. We share a little through charities, including the Heifer Project that distributes food and livestock to poor people around the world. It’s a way of recognizing our good fortune. In the future, we hope to share more.
We sell our animals for meat at prices most people can afford – a little more than the price for supermarket meat. When possible, we donate meat through charities that can turn it into meals for the needy.
We don’t hire illegal aliens. In fact, we don’t need any employees except a friend who stays at the farm to keep an eye on things when we’re out of town. Another friend, a fellow farmer, shares labor with us on the rare occasions when an extra body is needed, and we return the favor.
That’s how we work on being fair to people less fortunate. Fairness – like contagiousness, beauty and abundance – is not so much a standard to be achieved as it is a criterion to be interpreted and applied. We strive for fairness, even though it can’t be clearly defined, much less perfected. In the striving, I think we create a better world. We don’t exploit workers. We produce meat in ways that protect the environment for every living thing that shares our habitat.
But is the whole system fair to the livestock? Find out next week.