Gummo Trotsky, Peter Saunders and The Game of Life


In an article for Policy, Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies compares life to a game of Monopoly. But over at Tug Boat Potemkin, Gummo Trotsky is unconvinced.

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.

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2024 years ago

Great post Don. And the header image – very nice.


“If people start to believe that the market doesn’t reward people according to merit Saunders fears they might turn against capitalism.”

Free and unmoderated capitalism is not a great deal more meritocratic than a game of Monopoly is.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago

You beauty! Gummo’s come out of blogging retirement. Why wasn’t I told? It’s the best news I’ve heard in a while.

2024 years ago

Monopoly’s a retarded game about dumb luck and teaches the lesson that if you get a bit of good luck at the start, you’ll inevitably grind beneath your feet those who had crap luck.

In the normal rules, someone always misses out on getting a single set, and they’re gone.

Which is why we change the rules. We play it where every single property is up for auction when it’s landed on. That way you can decide which properties to bid high on; which to let go – it makes it about bluff and strategy and not about dumb luck. And it virtually guarantees that, unless you’re a total idiot, you’ll be able to get at least one set with which to compete…

(This rule change copyright 2003, MrLefty.)

Gummo Trotsky
2024 years ago


FWIW, After I’d finished the post you’ve linked, I got to thinking about how Saunders’ analysis of the “fair go” fails when you extend it beyond the economic & distributive issues he deals with in his article. I was stuck for an example, until
this came up on in the 7.30 Report coverage of the Robin Fahy brouhaha on Monday night (

“SENATOR MARK BISHOP, OPPOSITION SPOKESPERSON FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: It’s the most glaring breach of natural justice I’ve become aware of in my over 30 years in public life. The relevant officer has not received a fair go. She hasn’t received any semblance of justice, and then there is no way that we could describe the treatment she has received as resembling military justice in any shape, way or form.”


I slipped in quietly, with as little fanfare as possible, to avoid disappointing people when I slipped quietly out again. Cover’s blown now, though, damn it!

2024 years ago

“People get what they deserve” Merit.

But who juges what is worthy, and why them?

Saunders is a conservative who believes that the free market will deliver a natural aristocracy, much like what war was supposed to, just swap the shiny armour for puritain suits.

Really its all about pain and the labour theory of value working on worth rather than price. those who deserve pain, judge themselves less and get paid less. Its ‘natural’ justice.

Saunders uses the market price as an index for , no, the real thing, when really its just about allocating resources, not deserts.

Its a machine, not a morality.

Like poetry, that has to be made.

2024 years ago

“Saunders seems to want to take the rules of the marketplace and apply them to the whole of society.” Yes. And he’s not alone. Great idea – simple, neat and wrong.

2024 years ago

Phil, I don’t think Saunders wants to take the rules of the marketplace and apply them to the whole of society. He is simply saying that the idea of fairness as equal outcomes is not appropriate in the marketplace, that is to say, in economic policy. There is still scope for welfare policy and classical liberals are quite happy to help people who are not in the market (old, infirm etc) and we are open-minded about the things that might be done to help others who are in the market but have their success deferred.

Bear in mind that there are at least three pillars of the liberal order – (1) free trade, (2) the rule of law and (3) a moral framework including honesty and compassion. Compassion means helping people who are doing it tough and there are alternatives to the welare state to do that.

Don I think you have lost it here “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.”

2024 years ago

“others who are in the market but have their success deferred.”

I’m not sure what you mean by this, Rafe. On the face of it, it implies that anyone who’s in the market for long enough will experience success. Or is it shorthand for another idea?

2024 years ago

Sorry Warbo, it is a sendup of a recent decision by some progressive education authority to stop using the term “failure” and instead use “deferred success”. I am talking about people who ought to be out doing something for their living instead of languishing on welfare but are lacking skills or motivation or something so they very had to employ at award wages, especially if you are not allowed to dismiss them.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2024 years ago

Don – Next time we meet, I am going to have to probe whatever childhood humiliations at that public school led to your persistently bizarre interpretations of the motives and beliefs of your political opponents. Your statement that

“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.”

doesn’t even to seem to follow from what you say before or after; it is just something you believe deeply irrespective of evidence. Saunders does not stand for or advocate any of these things: he wants tax cuts for the middle class so that they can buy their own services rather than having to put up with inadequate/inappropriate/too slow state-run services, with a safety net for the poor, and believes there is more respect in having a job, even a boring low-status job, than being unemployed.

2024 years ago

Perhaps Don was humiliated at a private school?
But seriously, Don, do you claim to have clairvoyant powers that enable you to read the contents of people’s minds while you ignore their publicly stated views?

Peter Saunders
Peter Saunders
2024 years ago

The point of the original article in ‘Policy’ was to show there are at least three competing definitions of ‘fairness’ and that social affairs intellectuals are therefore wrong simply to assume (as they so often do) that for a policy to be ‘fair’ it must increase equality. The article included quotes from the other Peter Saunders, Wayne Swan, Ross Fitzgerald and others to illustrate the unthinking way in which our social affairs intellectuals repeatedly elide the ideal of the ‘fair go’ with egalitarianism. The article was intended as a critique of this sort of sloppy thinking.
I never suggested that any one of the three fairness principles was ‘correct’ while the others were in some way faulty, although I did point out that when it comes to ‘distributive justice’, most Australians find the meritocratic principle a lot more compelling than the other two (this is based on survey data).
I suggest readers of this blogsite look at my original article and then make up their own minds rather than relying on the blogger’s gloss on what I’m saying.

2024 years ago

badanalysis at work
“if you spend money on art, you get more art.
if you spend money on parks, you get more parks.
and if you spend money on poverty, you get more poverty.”

Gummo Trotsky
2024 years ago

“I never suggested that any one of the three fairness principles was ‘correct’ while the others were in some way faulty, although I did point out that when it comes to ‘distributive justice’, most Australians find the meritocratic principle a lot more compelling than the other two (this is based on survey data).”

Oh, but you did, Peter, you did. In the section “Competing Principles of Fairness”, you state:

“These three principles of fairness are logically incompatible with one another …”

and argue further:

“… We cannot maintain that equalising people’s incomes through a steeply progressive tax regime is ‘fair,’ for example, if we also think it is fair that people who work hard should be rewarded more than those who do not (meritocratic fairness), or that people should be allowed to keep what they have gained through voluntary exchange (liberal fairness).”

Similarly, I suppose, we cannot maintain that rewarding people who work hard is ‘fair’ if we also maintain that we also need to equalise incomes or allow the retention of gains made through voluntary exchange. And if we hold that people should be allowed to keep the fruits of voluntary exchange, we’ve ruled out both rewards for hard work and redistribution. We can’t hold all three principles of fairness to be true, even picking a pair of them and discarding the third is illogical. From the logical point of view we ought to pick one. As far as I can see this is what follows from your assertion that the three principles of fairness are “logically incompatible” but perhaps I’ve got that wrong.

I take the phrase “logically incompatible” to mean something like “mutually exclusive” ; perhaps you had some other meaning in mind; something that doesn’t carry the strong implication that egalitarian fairness rules out both meritocratic and liberal fairness, meritocratic rules out both egalitarian fairness and liberal fairness, and liberal fairness rules out both egalitarian and meritocratic fairness. If so, I’d like to know what that meaning is, because on either of the precise interpretations of the phrase I’ve identified above, you’ve committed a substantial logical howler.

To illustrate, consider the propositions:

1. Toves are slithy.
2. Toves are not slithy.

Now these two statements are mutually exclusive: if you assert the truth of the first it follows that the second is false and vice versa. This is known in the trade as “The Law of the Excluded Middle”. The question is, can we provide a third statement “x”, such that asserting that “Toves are slithy” entails the falsehood of “x”, asserting that “Toves are not slithy” also entails the falsehood of “x” and asserting “x” entails that toves are both slithy and not slithy.

I feel that I’m on pretty safe ground in stating that no such statement “x” is possible. And that I’ve got a bit carried away here through mistaking a rhetorical flourish for a substantive claim.

2024 years ago

Is it implicit in Saunders’ Monopoly-like world view that economic losers never return value to the community and that economic winners never cost the community? Judging from his policy recommendations, that would appear to be the case.