All is fair until we divide


[The following thoughts arrived this morning, February 28, 2019, after perusing a book on Fair Division (Brams and Taylor, 1996).]

Whether we like it or not, we humans grapple with a task or choice all the time. That choice involves division, something we intuit as a matter of taking a whole and breaking it down into parts or portions. That “whole” may literally be time, as in the question of what we do with our time. But why divide? Yes, why? Is it because time inexorably passes, but is finite because we are mortal? Is it because we say that “No man is an island?” Is it because we strive to solve the “economic problem”? (We may remind ourselves that the economic problem, according to the textbooks, is that of who should produce and use whatever it is that we decide to produce; this problem boils down to Adam Smith’s “division of labor” – the division of tasks – and also to the distribution or allocation of the things produced among those who wish to use these things.)

If economics is then the science dealing with the economic problem, there is no avoiding the idea that economics is about division. The positive side of economics sees how humans actually solve the economic problem. The normative side of economics asks how humans ought to solve the problem.

Given a certain or particular division, we then ask if it’s “fair.” Is that a fair question? It is not because it would be a form of begging the question. But it seems more correct to ask if the division was fairly arrived at, and fair is fair because division is first a process and then an outcome. There is no chicken-egg problem in analyzing answers to fair division questions.

The dictionary definition is interestingly hopeless. Merriam-Webster gives the one meaning of interest as “marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” In a way, it seems that fair is, like many primitive concepts, something more easily recognized than defined.

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