Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Enforcing Fairness

Years ago I worked at the IRS. Long-time employees earned 26 days of vacation leave annually. Rules allowed employees to carry over up to 30 days of leave into each new year. For many seasoned employees, that meant using over five weeks of leave per year.

While that sounds like a wonderful thing, many people found it difficult to actually take that much time away from work. This especially true given the fact that workers each earned 13 days of sick leave annually. There was no maximum limit on accruing sick leave. Many employees had built up months of sick leave.

I had been working for the service for a couple of years when a co-worker became seriously ill. Having been frugal with leave, this person was able to continue fully paid for many weeks. Eventually, weeks of hospitalization and bed rest exhausted the supply. While my co-worker was improving, the family was rapidly burning through its savings.

Several of my co-workers that had large leave balances approached human resources and asked if they could donate some of their excess leave to the ill person. We’re talking the federal government here, so a request of this nature would normally have taken several years to process. But somebody knew somebody that knew some high up muckety-muck in Washington. Thus, special dispensation was soon granted and many people donated leave, allowing my ill co-worker to remain financially stable while recuperating.

This leave donation program benefited a number of individuals over time. A couple of years after it was instituted, I became a beneficiary of the program when I experienced my first major Multiple Sclerosis attack and spent many weeks unable to work. I am deeply grateful for the generosity of my co-workers, which helped me and my family through a very trying time. It was several months before I was able to function at full capacity again.

But people soon noticed problems with the leave donation program. Donation opportunities had initially been limited to somewhat extraordinary situations. Eventually, however, workers were bombarded with requests, many of which seemed to be for fairly common situations that should have been manageable with a little planning, responsibility, and self reliance.

It was not surprising to see donors only giving to individuals they personally knew and whose situations seemed deserving. Of course, this led to cries of unfairness. Who could really judge the worthiness of a given case? Some prospective recipients felt their privacy had been violated. Who wanted their entire medical history paraded before the whole work force? The program, which had begun with co-workers requesting an opportunity to give had somehow shifted to potential recipients requesting donations.

The bureaucracy came to the rescue with a plan to level the playing field. No longer would employees be regaled with the tragic details of each case. Instead, only the names of potential recipients would be published in the monthly newsletter. Not only would this protect privacy, it would centralize all requests so that employees weren’t continually harangued with donation requests. A basic process was created to qualify each requestor.

Of course, donations dropped like a rock. Details would be leaked by close co-workers of afflicted individuals, and donors would still only give to those individuals they personally knew that seemed to have highly deserving situations. The union griped about the unfairness of the program. Some people got lots of donations and others got none whatsoever. The program, it was complained, favored the popular.

A committee was convened to address the problems. The result was a leave sharing pool, which was a form of cooperative insurance. You could pay in a certain number of hours of leave each year to be a member of the pool. If you were to end up in a situation that exhausted all of your leave, you could apply to the leave bank. As is the way of all bureaucratic processes, the application process became cumbersome and legalistic.

The new leave bank program soon showed its own set of problems. How much leave a beneficiary would receive was a crap shoot, depending on how much banked leave existed in the system at any given moment. This varied by dates people paid into the system and when requests for benefits hit.

The solution was to prevent all payouts until the end of the year, when all donation amounts and applications were known. Then each approved applicant would receive an equal proportion of the total banked leave. Thus, needed help did not assist individuals in real time, but only helped them after the fact. The connection between need and benefit became very loose. The person that needed six months of leave received the same benefit as those that needed only a couple of weeks, thus all beneficiaries were on ‘equal footing.’ Self interest had been substituted for the charity factor.

Initially, many participated in the leave bank program. But many people quit participating when it was reported that due to the number of leave requests one year, beneficiaries had received only a couple of days of leave each. The long-term cost of participation in the leave bank far outweighed the long-term expected benefit.

This case seems to prove the claim that no good deed goes unpunished. The initiative and generosity that spawned the program were eventually completely sidelined in order to achieve ‘fairness.’ Where some once benefited greatly, eventually many benefited little. But at least it was ‘fair’ in some kind of legalistic sense. But it wasn’t just.

Often when we seek to enforce justice through policy, we end up achieving the correctness element of justice while excluding the moral rightness element. Oddly, we usually embark on these crusades in the name of achieving moral rightness. Then when all is said and done, we end up only enforcing a legalistic correctness, which any good lawyer can twist to his purposes.


Bradley Ross said...

This is a brilliant post which provides an anecdotal demonstration of what we see in so many of the social welfare programs extant today. We want so much to help people, but systematizing that help has many unintended consequences. I'm not always opposed to a system for helping that seeks to be fair, but I do think it is wise to try to contemplate the side effects.

Chris said...

Great post. I echo bradley's comments that we see this sort of results in many of our social programs. Imagine what could be done in the absence of so much regulation in the name of fairness!