Pattern #32

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Fair Sharing of Costs and Benefits

The outcomes of much human activity are shared—for better and worse—often in unbalanced ways that generate unfair harms, feelings of entitlement, and denials of the fruits of contribution while interfering with social and ecological feedback dynamics. So support fair distribution of individual and collective benefits and hardships to maintain healthy living systems and foster collective wisdom.

  • Who deserves to receive what benefits – and to bear what costs – of our collective action – and why? What are the assumptions underlying our answers?
  • How can we correct the externalization of costs and the privatization of benefits?
  • In what ways – and to what extent – do we all share the outcomes of human activity, and in what ways do we not?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

One of the really interesting things about this is that fairness is usually framed in terms of what’s fair between people. Our attention is on how people are disadvantaged or made unhappy by unfairness. This is, of course, very important in a wise democracy, since we are going for broad benefit over long periods of time.

But with this pattern, there’s also some interesting social dynamics that are overlaid on top of that consideration. There’s a book called “Collapse”, which looks at collapses of past civilizations and why they collapsed. And one of the things noted in that book is that the elites of those civilizations tended to exert oppressive dynamics on the people and on the environment. They tended to use up more environmental resources and to create more environmental damage, both personally through their lives and through the policies and how they governed their societies. The book notes that this dynamic breaks the feedback loop of experiencing the effects of your actions: if you do something that causes harm, you should then experience some harm. This completes the feedback loop and there are corrective mechanisms built into such a feedback loop. So if you experience the harm that you’re producing, you will have some second thoughts and may do things differently that produce less harm.

But when that feedback loop is broken – and privilege tends to insulate you from experiencing the negative effects produced by you and the larger systems that you are part of – then in the larger societal dimension, that is one of the things that destroys a civilization. So such unfairness in experiencing harms destroys society, quite in addition to what’s happening to the individuals that are experiencing what’s going on.

In fact, you could define “privilege” as taking more of the benefits and exporting or externalizing the costs of your operations. So polluting factories tend to be located in places were poor people live. They don’t tend to site big factories in upper class neighborhoods for some reason.

And part of this is that it’s all “out of sight, out of mind” for people with privilege. The very fact of having privilege means you don’t have to think about or experience certain unpleasant things. That’s a big part of what privilege is all about. But those unpleasant things are happening somewhere to someone – either people now or future generations or taxpayers (because the government has to come clean up the messes). So that dynamic of breaking the feedback loop of the costs and the benefits is very much at work here.

So to what extent can we balance this out and have all the entities that are involved experiencing both the cost and the benefits? There’s a way in which it would slow things down. But over time it would make dynamics healthier, both collectively and individually. That approach would produce a broader, longer-term benefit than simply focusing on “this person or these people are being hurt or helped or preferenced”.

And if you are a private investor, you get the benefits of your investment – money! – and that gives you power. You have more money to use. Concentrations of wealth enable concentrations of power. You can buy media and buy representatives in government – you can give people favors that then they owe you back. You can get power by having money.

And that’s a very different dynamic than a Community Bank or shared ownership of things that allow the benefits to accrue to the community. It’s not like there should be no benefits, but the idea of having the benefits be channeled overwhelmingly to individuals distorts the whole structure of society. There are imbalances that are created in that way, that magnify or feed back on themselves and get bigger and bigger and bigger. And from a systems perspective, the system can’t hold that. There’s a point at which the system starts to fracture, it starts to come apart.

So if you want long-term broad benefits, understanding all this is fundamental to achieving that.

I want to share two quotes that I ran across that are interesting manifestations of this. One is “He who takes the benefit must bear the burden.” That’s certainly an interesting rule of thumb! And then there’s political philosopher John Rawls, who said “A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you would be willing to enter it in a random place.” So would you be willing to live a random life in your current society? You’d have a chance to be assigned a random place in somebody else’s life and you can live it. And if the society is just, you’d probably be more willing to do that than if it’s very unjust and the chances are that you’d get put in at the bottom of the barrel.

Video Introduction (7 min)

Examples and Resources

“He who takes the benefit must bear the burden.” – American legal maxim
“A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it in a random place.” — John Rawls