Efficiency vs. Fairness
One of the tough tradeoffs we’re asked to make is efficiency versus fairness.
Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article for the New Yorker makes the point that homelessness, like many other problems, follows a power-curve distribution, rather than a normal distribution.
In other words, instead of a bell curve, which indicates that we should focus on helping the fat part of the curve, most of the costs and benefits of treating homelessness comes from focusing on a very small number of hard-core homeless.
Culhane’s database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million
people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a
surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically
It turns out, furthermore, that this group costs the health-care and
social-services systems far more than anyone had ever anticipated. Culhane
estimates that in New York at least sixty-two million dollars was being spent
annually to shelter just those twenty-five hundred hard-core homeless.
In fact, these facts suggest that it would be far cheaper to simply *give* free apartments to the hardcore homeless, than to run our system of soup kitchens and emergency care.
The problem is that even though this solution is more efficient, it doesn’t seem fair.
Why should the worst offenders get the best treatment?
I’m torn, because fairness is a value that I hold very dear. Most Americans have no problem with people making obscene quantities of money, as long as it is done fairly. It’s the cheaters that we hate.
And in some sense, the most efficient solution to the homeless problem actually rewards the “cheaters.”
What do you think?