The aim of Monopoly is to drive your opponents into bankruptcy. For decades arrogant older brothers have been cut down to size by their little brothers and sisters. Everyone remembers the tantrums, sulking and exultant smirking. But play the game again the next day and the tables may turn.
Saunders thinks that Monopoly is a good metaphor for society. On his view a ‘fair go’ is about having rules which apply to everyone. Playing the game fairly means not bending the rules because you feel sorry for someone or cheating because you think your opponent doesn’t deserve to win. It’s an odd metaphor for society. Monopoly is all about winners and losers. But for most political philosophers society is about mutual benefit.
Saunders argues that there are three competing principles for the ‘fair go’ in social life. One is the classical liberal idea — society is fair when everyone plays by the same rules. The second is the meritocratic principle — fairness is about people getting what they deserve. The third is the egalitarian principle — equal shares for all. Saunders argues that most Australians think of fairness in terms of reward for hard work and talent while social policy intellectuals think of fairness in terms of equal shares.
Gummo Trotsky thinks that Saunders is oversimplifying. He writes:
Saunders’ three "logically incompatible" definitions of fairness might be accepted as partial definitions of what we mean by fairness in social settings a little more complex than your typical game of Monopoly.
Gummo is right.
No society is governed by a single set of distributive rules. When egalitarian social policy intellectuals are marking their students’ university assignments they don’t give everyone the same grade. Better assignments get better marks. But when they are rushing their sick child in the hospital emergency department they don’t assail the triage nurse with evidence of how hard working and talented their child is. The nurse’s job is to decide who needs help now and who can wait. Nobody expects universities and hospitals to distribute their goods and rewards equally between all comers. That wouldn’t be fair.
Australians have different expectations of fairness depending on which social institution they are dealing with. Many want the health system to distribute help according to the principle of need. A man with a heart attack should get attention before a kid with a grazed knee. Sporting contests should award prizes to those who perform the best not those whose parents make the biggest donations to the club. And attractive young men and women should award their affections to those that they care for, not be forced to divide their attention equally between all applicants.
Saunders seems to want to take the rules of the marketplace and apply them to the whole of society. Fairness in health care would be less about need and more about ability to pay. Access to university education would be about economic rather than academic performance. In such a society economic power would no longer be confined to the marketplace. It would cross over into other spheres of life.
Saunders misunderstands the point of egalitarianism. In his book Spheres of Justice, philosopher Michael Walzer argued that equality is a complex idea. In different social institutions he argued that different principles should apply. The problem egalitarians want to avoid is not difference but domination:
It’s not the fact that there are rich and poor that generates egalitarian politics but the fact that the rich "grind the faces of the poor," impose their poverty upon them, command their deferential behaviour. Similarly, it’s not the existence of aristocrats and commoners or of office holders and ordinary citizens (and certainly not the existence of different races or sexes) that produces the popular demand for the abolition of social and political difference; it’s what aristocrats do to commoners, what office holders do to ordinary citizens, what people with power do to those without it (p xiii).
Egalitarianism isn’t just about money. As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her book Nickel and Dimed, economic issues are bound up with issues of respect and self-esteem:
My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers — the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being "reamed out" by managers — are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth (p211).
A classical liberal like Friedrich Hayek wouldn’t encourage anyone to make that mistake. If a talented classical musician makes less than a soap-star turned pop singer, Hayek wouldn’t assume that this was because the second made more of contribution to society than the first. The rich are not necessarily more talented or hard working than the non-rich. But Peter Saunders is not that kind of classical liberal. For Saunders there are some truths that it’s best to keep quiet about. As he said in a 1999 Bert Kelly Lecture:
While he is to be admired for his honesty, Hayek was an economist and a legal philosopher, not a sociologist. A sociologist would heartily disagree with Hayek’s conclusions. As Durkheim said 100 years ago, in order for any society to work and function with stability, it has to have a clear sense of how it justifies its arrangements to those who live in it. Hayek’s ‘like it or lump it’ stance is unproductive because it will never provide legitimation and justification for a free capitalist society.
This is why ‘liberals’ like Saunders not only seek to cut off access to government funded services like education and health care but also go out of their way to humiliate low-wage workers. If people start to believe that the market doesn’t reward people according to merit Saunders fears they might turn against capitalism.