What's fair. And when does it matter?

I have a horrible confession to make. I am addicted to the comments on articles and blog posts on the LA Times website (and note that more and more of the coverage linked off the main page is in the form of blog posts). I fully recognize that these comments are not a representative collection of the opinions of LA Times readers, but they are a fascinating glimpse into the sort of things that get people angry enough to post and how some people think about social issues (hint: posts about immigration get lots of comments).

One tidbit that’s got a lot of commentary last week is a What do you think blog post titled “Should L.A. ban food trucks from parking on city streets? Tell us what you think.”. The post itself doesn’t offer much info on the proposed bans. The only real information is contained in this paragraph:

One proposal from Councilman Tom LaBonge asks city staff to study what other cities have done and to look into prohibiting trucks from parking at metered spaces in commercially zoned areas. The other calls for a report on the creation of specially designated catering-truck parking zones.

One of the repeating themes in the comments against food trucks is that food trucks are unfair competition for brick and mortar restaurants because they don’t have to pay rents. Another theme of the comments is that food trucks are a major public health problem because they’re unregulated. In theory this latter point is simply inaccurate and irrelevant because food trucks are permitted and inspected by the county public health department. In reality there almost certainly are a fair number of trucks out there that aren’t inspected so it’s not actually a crazy concern. However, I believe that food trucks display their permit so spotting an unpermitted one should be doable.

The fairness theme, though, is a fascinating one to me. The argument seems to be that it’s unfair to established restaurants in an area that the food trucks come in and lure away customers. On the surface–assuming that the trucks do follow the same food safety procedures as restaurants–the fairness critique strikes me as almost comically misguided. If I open a restaurant and am doing well until another restaurant opens down the street is that unfair? Of course not, it’s business. It may be personally tragic if my restaurant fails because the new one lures away my customers but at no point would it actually be reasonable for me to argue that all new restaurants should be banned because their competition is “unfair.”

The fact that the food trucks are using public parking spaces does complicate things a bit. We’re talking about commercial areas so it’s not like it’s a complete end-run around zoning laws, but it does potentially create density problems because effectively you’re adding businesses on the outside of the sidewalk in addition to those on the inside of the sidewalk. Additionally, the use of public sidewalk for interactions with customers (including waiting in line, ordering, waiting for food, and in many cases eating) is somewhat different than simply opening a restaurant next door to an existing one. (Except my experiences with certain chains in Westwood and Pasadena pretty clearly demonstrate that crowds milling around out front and blocking the sidwalk are not solely a food truck problem). I’m certainly not going to argue that food trucks are perfectly equivalent to restaurants or should be considered in that way. The ability to pick up and go where the demand is definitely gives a food truck an advantage over a restaurant. My argument is simply that the success of cheap, mobile food demonstrates that there are ways that established restaurants aren’t meeting consumer demand, and from a certain perspective if the demand is there it’s perfectly reasonable and fair that someone would step forward and meet it. Indeed I’m not sure what could be more fair.

Reading these critiques got me thinking about fairness and what it means to people. Life isn’t fair. There are an immense number of social structures in place that mean that how hard you have to work to succeed in the world depends a lot on where you’re born, who your parents are, and what resources are available to you. And that doesn’t even get at luck. Luck isn’t fair but it’s a major driving force in human life. So how do we think about “fair” when it comes to the formation of policies? Is it fair to use policy to try to correct the disadvantages that accumulate in a given life due to other policies? Is it fair to use policy to redistribute the wealth that people accrue in part due to luck (which we could call unfair accrual) and in part due to skill (which is perhaps fair accrual)? Is it fair that skills differ across people? That last question starts to take you down a Harrison-Bergeron-style rabbit hole.

So to what extent does it make sense to ask whether policies are “fair”? I would argue that it’s fundamentally impossible to correct all of the unfairness of the universe through rule and law. Does that mean that it’s a nonsensical concept when crafting laws? It certainly seems that many people would like for our laws to be “fair”. But are the there boundaries on that?

It is clearly true that the U.S. is a wealthier country than many others in the world and if you are lucky enough to be born to parents in the U.S. rather than parents in say, Zimbabwe, your chances of being healthy and well-educated are greater. Now, even if we argue that wealth in the U.S. was generated through skill rather than luck, it still is true that any person born today will benefit from the existing wealth (or lack thereof) in their country. Unless you believe in a deity with a plan who micromanages every aspect of human existence, you have to admit that whether you’re born in the U.S. or somewhere else is pure luck. So is it fair for U.S. policy to be focused on continuing to increase the country’s wealth? Certainly there are cases when we can argue that policy decisions are unfair in the sense that they create new disadvantages. But most people don’t look at policies that simply reinforce the existing advantage of having been born in a country that is richer than others as unfair. Even people who are for fairly radical redistributions of wealth typically do not argue for averaging out the standard of living globally.

So where are the lines? Personally I find myself thinking that there are a lot of legal structures in this country that are profoundly unfair but that fairness is not the grounds on which to reject those policies. I find that the more I think about policy the more I find myself thinking that life is unfair and luck and its lack play hugely into the advantages and disadvantages any individual faces. I’m against policies that compound the disadvantages that may come with who your parents are or where you were born but I’m not against them because I think they’re unfair. I’m against policies that compound disadvantage because I think they limit our growth as a society. I think they create a class of people who can’t live up to their potential and we all suffer for that. For instance I think the current system of funding for education, one that relies to large extent on the revenue from property taxes to fund schools, is profoundly broken because it gives children in wealthy communities a big advantage over children in non-wealthy communities. Sure that’s not “fair” but it’s also to my mind, unwise, because it lowers the overall education level of the population. Schemes for funding education that tied funding less to the community would be unlikely to dramatically lower the educational outcomes for middle and upper class communities, because kids in those communities already have lots of advantages in addition to well-funded schools. Moreover I’m not at all convinced that quality of education is a zero-sum game. That is, I don’t think that you have to lower the quality of education in some places to raise it in others. Maybe you keep the amount of money being spent on education constant you do to a certain extent. But I would argue that it’s likely that a more even distribution of funding might actually increase quality in some places more than it decreases it in others, thus raising the overall quality of education. I don’t advocate that because it’s more “fair.” I advocate it because I think a well-educated populace benefits everyone.

It seems to me that the question of how to regulate food trucks is really a question about use of public space and nothing else. Clearly there is a niche being filled by these trucks. Are the benefits from that large enough to outweigh the sidewalk crowding, parking, traffic and litter issues that come with selling food from mobile trucks parked in commercial areas? I don’t know the answer to that but to my mind asking about fairness doesn’t get us very far here.

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