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12 January  2020 - Jimmy Ramokgopa

“We strive for the best we can attain within the scope the world allows.” These are the words of John Rawls, in his book titled “Political Liberalism”. Indeed, from a practical point of view, we are limited to the scope that our world permits. Of course, it is good to dream and it is better to have an internal locus of control, but the reality is that, even when it is possible to be the best at what we do, all is determined by the circumstances around you.

Richard J. Arneson, in an article published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, titled “Equality of Opportunity for Welfare Defended and Recanted” (1999), mentions that the “more difficult and painful it is for an individual to make [the] best choice, the less reasonable it is to expect that she will make that choice. In other words, people have equal opportunity for welfare when the cards they are dealt are such that if they play their cards as well as one could expect, they gain the same expected welfare”. In simpler terms, it is reasonable to expect better results from people who have access to better resources than from those who do not.

“Fairness” can be a rather subjective matter and may seem mythical in many instances. “Fairness” means different things to different people under different circumstances. Google defines it as “impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination.” The definition makes sense, but is limited to human interaction. It says nothing about the intrinsic and extrinsic circumstances of the human being in relation to fairness.

Free market principles make reference to concepts of “fair competition,” where businesses operate on a “level” playing field. This is obviously mythical, since there are no identical businesses, with identical assets, opportunities and resources. Despite attempts from regulatory bodies to enforce “fair competition,” it is only natural for businesses to maximise their utility, which often results in competitors experiencing a loss.

In the political sense, many would say that “equality” is “fairness.” They would also argue that this article contradicts itself by saying that “equality” is a myth and yet claims that “fairness” isn’t. Of course, superficially, that argument would make perfect sense. But if you analyse the two concepts closely, you will realise that they are different and that one has had many occurrences, whilst the other has occurred only once since the beginning of time.

When has “equality” ever occurred?

Equality is defined as “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.” Therefore, equality among human beings occurred at least 2.8 million years ago, soon after they had evolved and became the first members of the human species, called Homo habilis. During that period of time, the first human beings were on an equal footing, and thereafter, equality became virtually impossible. This was due to the fact that some could run faster than others, make better tools than others, and build better shelters than others.

When has “fairness” ever occurred?

Fairness occurs many times. In the olympics, all athletes start on the same line. In a soccer match, all teams start with the same number of players. That is fair. But as mentioned earlier, “fairness” is not “equality.” Starting on the same line during a race, or having the same number of players on a soccer field, doesn’t mean that equality exists. Some athletes are simply stronger than others; some are more talented. Thus, “equality” becomes a myth.

So, even if we were to reset the economy, and provide every human being the same amount of resources, inequality would be an inevitable feature of the future. However, with that said, the issue facing South Africa is that the previous regime created an unfair socio-economic system. In the new dispensation, we did not start on the same line. We did not start with the same number of players. That is unfair.

So, how do we fix this? How do we make an ongoing and inevitably unequal system fair? Well, there are three possible options:

1) You reset the system, placing everyone on the same starting position. However, because of the finite resources, I suspect that this would lead to extreme poverty.

2) You restrict the progress of those who are ahead - through policy and taxation. I believe this is what many African countries have been trying to do, which has actually limited economic growth altogether by making it difficult for the generation of new opportunities.

3) You accelerate those who have been left behind through developmental policy, until they find themselves in a position that would allow them to compete fairly.

I’m an advocate of the third option. To me, it makes better sense to develop than to take from others. Afterall, you cannot develop the poor by bringing the wealthy down.

-     Jimmy Ramokgopa (@JimmyRamokgopa)




Jimmy Ramokgopa

BSc. Engineering (Civil) - University of the Witwatersrand

Businessman - socio-economic and political commentator

Activist - The Collab Movement 


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