Leveling the Playing Field: Is Equal Always Fair?



The word “fair” gets thrown around a lot. We see the child on the playground complaining that it wasn’t fair that Jimmy got to go ahead of him on the slide because Jimmy went first last time. We turn on the TV to see sports reporters debating the fairness of the NFL’s new policies on tackling. And again and again we hear the conversation of fairness on everything from election poles to tax breaks; from market prices to insider trading; from little league baseball to the amount of homework kids have to do these days. The issue of fairness also comes up in the global market as it pertains to who gets to partake in the party – who gets a crack at a piece of the pie.

But before diving into the realm of global trade and the need to level the playing field, I think we need to have a deeper discussion on this business of what’s truly fair.

If I were to ask for your definition of “fairness,” I suspect that I would receive a different answer than mine. The natural assumption of fairness would be that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate within the system designed and that rules or regulations would be put into place to ensure that no one has an advantage over the system itself. This definition is quite accurate and has very necessary implications within all spheres of society.

A typical synonym for fairness is equality. If everyone were equal, or moreover, given equal resources, then the system would be fair. From there, the system, once the playing field has been adequately leveled and rules put into place, is opened to a survival of the fittest mentality. The assumption then becomes, as long as you are playing within the rules, anything goes. There is a justification within the capitalistic arena that says that as long as the playing field is the same for everyone, then success is contingent upon whatever means are necessary to get the job done! Again, there are positive aspects to this, aspects that made America a dominant power in the world through the blood, sweat, and tears of hard working Americans.

But let’s look at the playing field for a second and broaden it to include the global community. And let’s take another hard look at the connecting points of fairness to equality. Let me give you a few examples. We have three individuals attempting to look over a six-foot fence, and in the spirit of fairness, each person is given a stool one-foot high to aid them in this endeavor. In the world of equal is fair, this seems to create a fair experience for all. Except when we see that Johnny is six feet tall already, Susie is five feet tall, and Timmy, well he’s three-foot six. The spirit of fairness only allows two of the three individuals to see over the fence, Johnny didn’t need assistance to begin with, and Timmy is simply out of luck. “Equality” in this scenario doesn’t help most people.

I saw an editorial cartoon in the educational world a while back that caught my attention and I believe it speaks to what we’re discussing here. The picture captures a group of educators at the zoo giving the final exam for the year, testing their fellow animals to see if they had learned anything in the past year. The test was a simple one – get the ball out of the tree. The monkey, the toucan, and the giraffe had no problem at all and were praised for their accomplishment and craftiness, and received top marks. The next picture had a hippopotamus and a crocodile looking at each other, and the crocodile says to the hippo, “Well, you first!” Once again, equality doesn’t necessarily create a fair situation.

We have to come to realize that this world is made up of a vast array of people, places, and circumstances. Each person, each community, and each country has different lifestyles, different resources, and different needs that are unique to them and them alone. The needs of a rice farmer in sub-Saharan Africa are different than a rice farmer in Vietnam. It would be inappropriate and ineffective if I were to give flood control devices to all rice farmers as a means to level the playing field. The Vietnamese farmer would be overjoyed during the rainy season in Vietnam, but the farmer in sub-Saharan Africa would scratch his head as he tries to figure out how to get water to his crops so that the village has enough to eat next season.

We tend to generalize when it comes to aid. We assume that everyone that is in need is the same, and needs the same resources. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we tend to generalize the type of person who needs those resources. We tend to think of them as uneducated, unmotivated, or unwilling to raise themselves out of poverty. But the truth is that in most cases of poverty, what is needed is not equality, what is needed is the ability to be given the chance to get into the game through unique opportunities specific to that individual, that community, or that country.

Because for the vast majority in the grips of global poverty, we are typically dealing with educated, highly creative and resourceful individuals that could change the world if given the opportunity. All they need is the right set of unique circumstances to catch their break.

If you don’t believe me, let’s turn to the Bible and see if it’s true there. Christianity is in existence today because 12 resourceful, creative, and determined men and 7 passionate, never-stopping, intelligent women decided to give everything they had to become like their Rabbi – to become Jesus. Think of what a couple hundred Ugandan business men and women could do in their communities if given the unique opportunities to enhance their position within the global market. Think of what a couple dozen Liberians could do to change their towns and cities with a relatively simple inclusion into the global conversation and the means to be productive.

The Bible is pretty clear about how you incorporate fairness into relationships. Words like love you neighbor come into play, and the defining aspect that everyone is in fact your neighbor. The biblical idea does not necessarily relate to the American ideal of acquiring as much wealth and power as you can. Instead, it teaches the idea that equality and fairness are actually interlaced in how you treat one another through lending and borrowing; through hospitality and a communal focus. It’s not about me, it’s about we! And when we start thinking of global trade and the business market, we need to grow out of the “one-size-fits-all” mentality and start bringing the world into the market one entrepreneur at a time, one neighbor at a time, one community at a time, and simply learn to share.

When we start thinking of we instead of just me, that is when the playing field becomes a lot flatter, and equality actually starts looking a lot like a truly fair environment.  This is what Narrow Gate Exchange is attempting to do – to provide the means to allow local businessmen the unique and specific opportunity to establish sustainable businesses that can grow in their local communities and be grown by local community members so that one day it can reach the global market. And who knows, God willing, one day they just might change the world!

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks Jeremy! I appreciate your perspective and will appreciate the simplicity and yet profound statement – it’s not about me it’s about we!

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