In this nation of supposed equal opportunity, the prevalence of unequal outcomes begs the question: Is the path from opportunity to outcomes guided by a set of rules that can be considered fair? The importance of the answer to this question cannot be understated. If we accept the rather generous assumption that equal opportunity exists at the outset, then we may consider two cases. First, if the rules of the game are fair, then unequal outcomes are the justifiable result of some mechanism(s) originating with equal opportunities for all, and proceeding forward within universally applied guidelines to some natural conclusion.
Conversely, if the rules of the game are unfair, then unequal outcomes may be the unjustified result of some mechanism(s) originating with equal opportunities for all, and proceeding forward at different rates and under different constraints for various persons towards a variety of conclusions. The difference between end points in this latter case can be considered an inequity because of the manner in which one decision rule is applied to one group while another decision rule is applied to another group, without any underlying ethical reasoning.
The question asked briefly here is: "Are the rules of the game fair?" To consider whether the rules of the game are fair, I make use of the popular game Monopoly as an analogy to life in these United States. There are both striking similarities and considerable differences between the world of Monopoly and real life in the United States. These similarities and differences can help us elucidate the difference between fair and unfair rules, and help us see how the rules must be changed to work towards social justice.
At the beginning of the Monopoly game, all players are given the same amount of money without having done anything to earn that money. What a player does with this money (i.e., how he or she chooses to spend it) determines the difference in outcomes by which someone wins the game and the others lose. That there is a difference in outcomes under this scenario is not considered unjust, because the rules that guide the game from beginning to end are considered fair.
For instance, the majority of the game is dictated by rolling the dice, which leaves the majority of happenings within the game to chance. The properties upon which you land determine what you can or cannot buy or how much rent you owe. Chance and Treasure Chest cards are also randomly selected and aptly named, and they apply to all players. The rules that determine who must go to jail and how long they must stay there are uniformly applied to all players as well. Everyone who passes go collects the same $200. Even though certain groups play with special rules (e.g., all taxes go into the middle of the board and are collected by the player who lands on the Free Parking space) within any particular iteration of the game, all players are entitled to the chance of striking it rich under this special rule. With all of the players subject to these vary same rules, the combined elements of random chance and players decisions in the face of opportunity eventually culminate in there being a winner and a loser (although the game might go on for quite a long time), and so long as no one violated these rules during the course of the game, the outcome is considered fair.
What if Monopoly were made to more closely resemble life in the United States (and many other countries in the world) by implementing a series of unfair rules? How would the game be played? All players would begin the game with some amount of money, but the amount would vary between players based on each individual's family background, or better yet, whether they happened to be the boot or the racecar the dog or the thimble. Perhaps the wheelbarrow would start with no money whatsoever.
From there, a rule would be implemented that would allow individuals to roll the dice as many times as they wished until they rolled a number with which they were happy. The catch being that each roll cost $10. In this way, those with more financial resources at their disposal are able to pursue a better outcome than those with fewer or no financial resources. In turn, this would enable those with the resources to buy the better properties, taking away opportunities for those with fewer resources to do so. Now those who can least afford it are stuck paying rent to those who already have most of the money.
Chance and Treasure Chest cards would not be entirely random any longer. Rather, the likelihood of receiving a beneficial Chance or Treasure Chest card would be greater among those with resources, while the likelihood that one would have to pay a fine would be increased among those with fewer resources. Besides, even when those with more resources end up having to pay a fine, it is less of a setback for them, precisely because of their resource availability.
Those with limited financial resources or who do not own property and roll doubles three times in a row or land on the wrong side of the tracks by chance end up being sent to jail, with little or no means of paying their way out, while those with greater financial resources can roll all the doubles they want as long as they check themselves into rehab.
Property owners and others with financial resources collect $200 just for going around the board. If a player with limited resources is fortunate enough to pass go, they collect only a fraction of the standard $200. This, of course, serves to widen the resource gap between rich and poor as time goes on.
The special rule of Free Parking described above applies only to members of an elite private club. In fact, outsiders are not even entirely sure of the existence of this rule. They suspect that there is some sort of unequal treatment going on, but the secret of this particular rule is so closely guarded by the ruling class that the lower classes are at an informational disadvantage. It is little wonder, then, that they cannot lay claim to a benefit that they know nothing about.
In the end, there will be a winner and loser just as in the first scenario. However, in this case, the game is likely to be over much more quickly, because one group was favored at the outset and all throughout the game by the application of two sets of rules. One set of rules conferred a distinct advantage to the preferred group, while the other set of rules conferred a distinct disadvantage to the non-preferred groups. As a result, the winner of the game was able to amass wealth not through skill, but by the accrual of cumulative advantage. This is clearly unjust, and the difference in outcomes is a stark inequity. The goal of social justice advocates must be to examine the rules of the game and ensure equality, not of outcomes, but of opportunity within a system of fair play. _____________________________________________________
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