The Psychology of Equal Protection

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Repairing The Systen / The Supremes

A  brotherly difference of opinion about cake portions  presents the  same type of  issue that the Supreme Court will soon decide in an important  case. They both involve examples of inequity.

Nicholas Kristoff  reports  that scientists have found that monkeys  are very sensitive to   unequal treatment.  If you give one monkey  tastier food, the others resent it.   But Kristoff  also gives us a lot of examples of situations where humans protest  unequal treatment.  Whether it turns on preferential treatment for  first class air travelers or the sky-high salaries paid to corporate CEOs,  those left out resent it.

This Jared Bernstein article raises  the fairness issue of income inequality. He tells of a growing feeling that something should be done about the enormous wealth differentials between Americans.  The top 1 percent of Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.  Bernstein also sketches out a  legislative  program that would decrease economic inequality in America.  A family allowance for children,  a government jobs program, and expansion of the earned income tax credit are all on his list.

In Wisconsin in 2012, there was a State Assembly election where  Republican candidates  were elected to a majority of the seats statewide even though the Democrats won a majority of the votes. They accomplished this remarkable feat by artfully drawing the election boundaries in a way that minimized the success of Democratic candidates.  The Seventh Circuit ruled that this  political gerrymander violated our constitutional provision against inequity, the Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the Wisconsin case and other alleged political  gerrymanders in  state and Congressional elections all over the country.  A decision is expected before the 2018 elections.  Of course, political gerrymanders have been used by the Democratic  party as well as the Republican in the past.  They are unfair no matter which party prevails, but in today’s America that party is almost always the Republican. And there is no doubt that the Republicans will use the political  power the gerrymander gives them to  defeat  the equality enhancing reforms Bernstein proposes.

Most people  dismiss the political gerrymander as too complex an issue to understand, much less care about.  That’s why I want to insist that the current Supreme Court case raises the same basic moral issue as the brothers’ dispute.   Have the portions been allocated fairly?  And like the cake argument — and that over  a family allowance for children- –  how that issue of fairness  is decided will  have a very concrete effect on the lives of very real people.

Here is a video of the monkey experiment.  It’s great.


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