Of inequality and fairness

Man will always be a man. There is no new man. We tried so hard to create a society that was equal, where there'd be nothing to envy your neighbor. But there's always something to envy. A smile, a friendship, something you don't have and want to appropriate. In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.

- Danilov, Enemy at the Gates.

Inequality is here to stay. There has never been an equal world, and there will never be one. That said, I believe that almost all human beings operate in a self constructed notion of fairness (I do not have even the most basic education of human psychology). And yes, that includes your corrupt politician, terrorist or the sabziwala giving you 950 grams instead of a kilo.

Of course, it includes you and me. I will give you an example. Most people I know inflate a few bills when it comes to filing their income tax returns, read rent. They are all very honest people. Some will perhaps donate considerably more than what they save this way to charity. Most will return the extra money to the shopkeeper if he has made a mistake. Quiz them why they do what they do and they will tell you that it is only fair to save some hard earned money rather than give it to a corrupt government which will pocket a chunk of it anyway.

I find it a bit difficult to fathom how anyone could be comfortable with the idea of being a villain. Hence, I can only conclude that it is this same customized sense of fairness that drives what we do; often things which really aren't fair. 
Maybe Salman thought that it was only fair that he could shoot a black buck for a little fun after some grueling shooting schedule, of what use are the animals anyway? Maybe Mr. Bachchan thought it was only fair to declare himself a farmer to get the land for a farmhouse, he was going to do some cultivation on it anyway. And maybe Mr. Praful Patel decided that with him being the aviation minister, it was unfair to not have a business class flight on the route to his home town, even when the airline was bankrupt and no one else would fly business on that route.

Now take the example of our very own Mukesh Ambani's billion dollar most expensive home Antilla; which incidentally, is the ugliest possible construction in the world, atleast on the outside. It somehow violates the simplest possible notions of geometry. Ms. Nita Ambani however, makes a poignant, heart touching story of how it is their only home in the world, how they live on the top floors of the 27-storey structure in the quest for a little sunlight and how like a perfect doting housewife, she tries to put up a smiling face at the end of the day when her husband comes home. Well, you mean after he has climbed 20 something floors with that tummy of his? Just kidding, I'm sure Mr. Ambani can afford an elevator just to get into his parked car (probably would, a few years down the line :P).

Mr. Ambani's abode does not seem all that unfair if you want to believe that he has put in his talent and hard work to earn such obscene amounts of money and choose to ignore that a vast chunk of his wealth has been earned off exclusive access to oilfields and natural resources in the country. Incidentally, Mukeshbhai allegedly obtained access to those not by providing the end products at cheap, reasonable prices but by generously bribing much of the parliament.

So, I will give you a better example. Coca Cola or Pepsi, as most of us are aware, costs less than a rupee per 300ml bottle to manufacture. You and I happily pay 10 bucks for the same. Well, the rest of it goes to marketing ;as they say, to pay super rich celebrities to tell us that it really is a cool product. Well, when you justify the 7 bucks with feel good terms like marketing, brand positioning etc, it sounds okay. But when I consider the fact that I bought a product that cost a rupee to make and someone spent 7 rupees just to tell me that it is a cool product, I do feel stupid, even if a little bit. More importantly, is it fair to ask a 700% premium on a product?

The whole point in all this junk is a question that I often ask myself. Is it fair that Mukesh Ambani's opulence happily co-exists in a country where billions of people cannot afford the basic daal-chawal every day? The pepsi comes in because it cannibalizes a market where rich educated aristocrats (and the wannabes, you and me) could be drinking say, lemon soda manufactured by some agro-industry somewhere in the country. It could have been sold for 5 rupees a bottle. But the educated, socially aware Indian who lights candles in protest of certain social ills and discusses "death sentence for rapists" on facebook, is happy to pay the 700% premium on the bottled beverage and contribute to the "trickle-down economy" as some would call it, rather than more ROI 5 rupees to a road side vendor. Is that fair?

Do not get me wrong here, though. The one thing that I am not trying to ask, is for Mukeshbhai's wealth to be distributed among the needy, just like that. In fact, to a certain degree, I agree with Ayn Rand's theory of objectivism, and agree with the concept of the  free market in principle. I am the firmest believer that people should not be given anything for free, because it acts as a deterrent to motivation to work hard, which, at the end of the day, is what creates value in a society. In principle, everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed in a free market, and whatever product holds the greatest value should be the one to succeed. In a real free market however, this is hardly the case. Because the humble 5 rupee lemon soda, though holds more value, is significantly less likely to succeed.

Most forward thinking Indians are against all forms of caste based discrimination, right? Why? Because we, in all our brilliance conclude that it is grossly unfair for someone to be entitled to something by virtue of birth. Why then, is Mukesh Ambani entitled to an Antilla, which needless to say, he wouldn't have gotten close to had he not been Dhirubhai's son? Why is then Rahul Gandhi, in some dark day, destined to rule India by virtue of being the heir of a family? Or why then, does flop show Abhishek Bachchan get movies at all?

And why then, is a beggar's son destined to not go very far, despite what his IQ, EQ or such other Q's might be, while I get to drink a coke for which the Salman Khan's get paid 70%, because they are telling me that coke might help me jump off a cliff?

Now, is that fair?


Gaurav said...

I reckon half of it comes from, what for lack of a better word, is being a part of the herd. Its easy to ask the same questions as everyone else, rhetorical as they might be, for the simple reason that they make you sound at least as thoughtful as the guy who thought of it in the first place.
The reason we progress is because someone comes up with an idea and implements for the selfish reason of being better off than he currently is, knowing a list of people who's success he wants to attain. Equality, by definition, would render such efforts meaningless.
Utopia is a dream, a comforting one maybe, but knowingly false.

Mahul Bhattacharya said...

The equality that I talk of, is not about similar quality of life for everyone, because that would be unfair to the people who are doing more. And, there will always be people doing more than other people.

The equality that I advocate, is the equality of opportunity, wherein someone will not be disadvantaged simply because he was born to a beggar just as someone should not be advantaged simply because he was born to Sonia Gandhi.

Unknown said...

Mahul, here's my counter post - http://kidakaka.com/blog/2013/03/07/inequality-can-still-be-fair/