Three years ago, a friend of mine asked me a very tough question. How best can Nigerian policymakers formulate and implement public policies that are socially just? I couldn’t give him a direct answer. Though I still don’t have a direct answer to his question today, perhaps a thought experiment by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, in his book “The Idea of Justice” can help him and several others who have asked me similar questions in the past to better understand how they can flesh up the abstract concept.
This is the scenario:
Imagine that my friend is a senior public figure and comes across three children – Aminu, Bala, and Ciroma – fighting over a flute. They may not be able to decide who gets the flute and so they want him to decide for them. One by one, they make their respective cases to him.
Aminu says: “I should get the flute. I’m the only one here who can play it. And after all, the point of the flute is to play music. The other two can’t play, so why should they get it?”
Then, Bala says: “I made the flute. I provided the materials for it. I spent time and effort making it. It is the fruit of my labour. How could you possibly take this from me and give it to someone else?”
Finally, Chiroma says: “Of the three of us, I am the poorest. I have nothing in this world. Even though I don’t play the flute and I didn’t make it, you should give me the flute. Because, then, you would have improved my lot in life immeasurably.”
Which child do you think my friend should give the flute to? Whatever may be the reasons and qualifications behind my friend’s decision, definitely says a lot about how he defines social justice?
(It goes without saying that my friend can assign the flute only to a single child. Sharing the flute is not an option, nor is selling it and splitting the proceeds.)
I can imagine that if my friend were a pragmatic person, he will give the flute to Aminu. He will be compelled by utilitarian logic to match the flute (“resources”) to the flutist (“talent”). He may want to justify this on the grounds of efficiency, and by saying that social welfare is maximized because everyone, including Bala and Chiroma, gets to enjoy the music.
I can also imagine most of us arguing that he should give the flute to Bala, because it resonates with our dominant narrative of meritocracy and deserved reward. After all, Bala’s case – using the language of desert and entitlement – rests on the notion that the flute is naturally his own, and that it is wrong to dispossess him of it for whatever reason.
What of Chiroma? Alas, Chiroma rather inconveniently may put my friend and of course most of us in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
Last week, i adapted this thought experiment at a workshop for community leaders across Nigeria on the challenge of conflict management, peaceful co-existence, and national integration during my session on promoting social justice in Nigeria. When I ran this experiment, the majority of participants did not give the flute to Chiroma. The reasons typically given are that it creates moral hazard and a culture of dependency, that it is a waste of resources (the utilitarian argument), and that it is unacceptable to deprive someone (Bala) who merits the flute through effort (the meritocracy argument).
Furthermore, those who reject Chiroma also start to “fill in the gaps” in the story – for example, by saying that Chiroma must have been lazy and hence deserved his lot in life. Very quickly, the platitudes like “give a man a fish and he eats for a day but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” are uttered.
Some participants, though, catch on very quickly, and they start to distinguish the “house view” they feel prompted to hold, which led them down the paths of utilitarianism and meritocracy, onto the arguably more compassionate choice of giving the flute to Chiroma.
As one participant put it: “As a lawyer and politician, I will give the flute to either Aminu or Bala. But as a human being, I would rather Chiroma have it.” As if public policy enterprise, or even the Nigerian condition generally, requires that we suspend our humanity and compassion, and opt for utilitarianism or meritocracy’.
Now, of course, the reality is far more complex than this thought experiment. In Nigeria, we have more than that one flute to give out, though we are accustomed to always assigning the flute in a particular way rather than being governed by an uneven blend of utilitarian, meritocracy or egalitarianism.
But the point of this experiment, however contrived, is to make explicit my friend’s (and ours) biases in policy decisions (or moral reasoning, if he prefers), so that he can unpack that blend of logic that governs his (our) allocation decisions, and openly debate why one particular logic dominates rather than others.
This thought experiment asks my friend – if there is a chance, he himself turns out to be disadvantaged by our default choice, would he still make the same choice? The import of this experiment is just to show that public policy is not simply an exercise in technocracy. As such, in assigning resources to various policies or programs there are several factors to consider. Rather, where we put, our resources should speak to how we think and act on the fairness of opportunities and outcomes. Given the rising poverty, inequality, and social injustice in Nigeria, it is high time my friend thinks hard before he decides which of the three children should get the flute