Playground Logic

I’m enjoying reading Steven Landsburg’s book, The Big Questions.  I like his use of playground logic.   The following is from Chapter 20, The Economist on the Playground, where he discusses some of our ideas about fairness.

1. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Whenever a politician proposes to make the tax code more progressive, we hear rhetoric about how the rich have too much, the poor have too little, it’s only fair to spread the wealth more equally, and so forth.  To me, the interesting thing about that rhetoric is that nobody believes it.  Of this I am certain, because in all the years I took my daughter to the playground, I never once heard another parent tell a child that if some kids have more toys than you do, that makes it okay to take some of them away.

I’d add that if you attempted to impose this rule on the playground to the very people who support a progressive tax code, you could meet with a violent response.  But, that’s pure speculation.  They may calm down after you explain that you are simply doing what’s intended in society through a progressive tax code.

Here’s another one:

2. Live with your choices. I once took two children to dinner.  Each had a choice: ice cream now or bubble gum later.  Alix chose the ice cream; Cayley chose the bubble gum.

After Alix had finished her ice cream, we went off to get Cayley’s gum.  Cayley got the gum, Alix got nothing, and Alix cried foul.  To any adult outsider, it would have been clear that Alix had no case; she’d been given the same choices as Cayley and taken her rewards up front.

The same issues arise in adult life.  Peter and Paul face the same opportunities early in life.  Peter chooses to work forty hours a week for a guaranteed wage; Paul works around the clock to create a new enterprise with uncertain rewards.  Thirty years later, when Peter is poor and Paul is rich, Peter cries foul and assaults the system that fosters such inequality.

I wouldn’t want to argue that Paul’s choice is intrinsically more admirable than Peter’s, any more than I would argue that a taste for gum is intrinsically more admirable than a taste for ice cream.  But I do want to argue with Peter’s reasoning about the consequences of that choice.  A good test is to ask whether any adult would take it seriously in a dispute between first graders.  Peter’s griping fails that test.

I’ll  try framing wealth redistribution discussions this way and see how it works out.  I anticipate getting responses like, “Not everyone starts off with the same opportunities early in life” or simply “You know it’s not that simple.”

It may be that simple.  It’s just that few people recognize that such choices have different consequences.

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