To Be Fair

Fairness is an important part of living in a just society. No one wants to think that they are being taken advantage of, that someone else gets more than they deserve. At the same time, fair is not the same as equal. In a capitalist democracy, some do have more, but in theory, all have the opportunity to achieve success.

Sometimes, however, rules that seem equal can turn out to be unfair. In New York City, one council member has introduced a bill to base parking ticket fees on a sliding scale. The inspiration was a rumor about a resident who “had built an illegal driveway next to their home by drilling through the concrete sidewalk. The homeowner was telling neighbors that simply paying the fines was more affordable than a parking spot, and less of a hassle than street parking.”

For the wealthy, a $50 fine for an illegal driveway might be worth getting to park your car right in front of your home. On the other hand, $50 for someone struggling to make ends meet could have dire consequences. The fine might be equal, but is it truly fair?

The new bill would mean that wealthier New Yorkers would pay more for civil violations than poorer residents. The hope is that this would lead to better compliance with the rules by the rich, and perhaps more payment by the less rich. “The city is owed over $2 billion in fines from civil violations committed since 2017, including over $1 billion in parking and camera-related fines for speeding or running red lights.”

Jewish tradition also struggles with the balance of fairness vs. equality. On the one hand, the Torah mandates a half-shekel tax for every person over age 20. “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” (Exodus 30:15) This is a regressive tax since half a shekel for a poor person is a burden while it is a trifle for the rich.

On the other hand, when a person vows to contribute their value as a person to the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), “the priest shall make the assessment according to what the vower can afford.” (Leviticus 27:8) In other words, the priest would use a sliding scale to determine what amount a person would contribute.

The difference between these two texts is that the half-shekel was a mandatory tax, while the dedication was voluntary. The text in Exodus expects that everyone makes an equal contribution. Leviticus sees the maintenance of the sacred space as a donation.

Similarly, modern governments raise money in different ways: taxes, which apply to most people; and fees and fines, which only apply to some. The goal should be to make all of these payments as fair as possible. While actual equality may not be possible, or even desirable, fairness is certainly within our reach.


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