No envy: a Nobel economist as a forerunner on fairness

A blogpost by Conrad Heilmann and Stefan Wintein
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Jan Tinbergen

The rich legacy of EUR economist Jan Tinbergen needs updating. Besides a Nobel Prize in economics, having founded Dutch and international organisations, being active in policymaking and economic development, and having published influential works especially on econometrics, there is also this: Tinbergen has formulated the “no envy” fairness principle already in 1930, decades earlier than previously known. We published an English translation of his Mens en Maatschappij article in the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

A conversation in the 1920s

It will have been sometime in the late 1920s; when exactly remains unclear. Jan Tinbergen, then a PhD student, posed a question to his supervisor Paul Ehrenfest. He asked: what is fair? Ehrenfest responded along the following lines: well, if I do not want to have what you have, and you do not want to have what I have, then I suppose that’s fair.

So far the report of influential fairness economist Serge-Christophe Kolm. He recalls that Tinbergen told him this story at a conference sometime in the 1960s. What has hitherto been unknown is that Tinbergen not only had a conversation with Ehrenfest in the 1920s. Shortly afterwards, he also formulated the idea of not envying each other in precise terms.

Tinbergen originally published his fairness as no-envy idea in the article “Mathematiese psychologie” in 1930 in the Dutch journal Mens en Maatschappij. Owing to the article published in Dutch, it did not reach an international audience. To this day, it is typically an article by Foley 1967 that is referred to as the first modern formulation of the no-envy idea.  The few authors that do credit Tinbergen with the no-envy idea refer to his English book on fair income distribution in 1946, where the idea of “no envy” playing a role for fairness is only mentioned in passing.  However, Jan Tinbergen has formulated foundations for fairness theorizing in philosophy and economics—decades earlier than previously known.

Jan Tinbergen: The thinker

When starting the project “Jan Tinbergen: the thinker”, biographer Erwin Dekker—knowing that we are interested in fairness—pointed us to the 1930 article, thinking it might perhaps be of some interest. What a surprise to find the idea of “no envy” described there in detail, with graphs and equations! It would take welfare economists till the early 1970s to describe no envy in similar detail.

It does not happen everyday that one learns something new about a Nobel laureate! And so, together with Erwin Dekker and Ruth Hinz we translated the 1930 article, and with kind permission from Mens en Maatschappij and the Tinbergen estate have published it in the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

No envy today

Nowadays, the “no envy criterion” of fairness lies at the heart of many influential theories of fairness in philosophy and economics. The core idea is simple enough: that an absence of envy means that a distribution is fair. For example, someone with a low salary and an easy job might not envy someone with a high salary and a hard job. These insights can be used to evaluate distributions. Does a given distribution of resources satisfy a “no envy test”? If so, many philosophers and economists would say that such a distribution is fair.

But is it really that simple? Sometimes it is. For example, the “no envy” criterion helps see the appeal of the famous “divide and choose” method. Suppose there is a cake to be divided between two children. How to ensure that they both agree the division is fair? Well, you let one of them cut the cake, and the other can choose first which slice to take. Neither will have grounds to envy the other’s slice of cake.

It is surprisingly hard to extend what works well for envy-free cake cutting with two children to more complex cases. Ensuring envy-free distributions for three children is already much more complicated – as is satisfying other criteria, such as not wasting any cake. Throwing away the cake would ensure an envy-free distribution, but it would hardly be a desirable solution! So investigating how envy-freeness and efficiency can be realized together has become important.

Welfare economists and political philosophers are to this day using the “no envy criterion” for creating theories of fairness and fair distribution. They balance it with other criteria, and also try to apply it to more complex cases than simple cake cutting. The idea of “no envy” is disarmingly simple; making it work in all situations is anything but. To do so, is an exciting, and ongoing, conversation in philosophy and economics – first documented nearly 100 years ago, but still important.

Conrad Heilmann and Stefan Wintein collaborate in the Fairness Project.


No envy: Jan Tinbergen on Fairness, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics 14(1), 222-245, 2021, by Conrad Heilmann and Stefan Wintein.

Mathematical Psychology. Translation of Jan Tinbergen’s 1930 article: ‘Matematiese Psychologie’, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics 14(1), 210-221, 2021, by Jan Tinbergen, translated by Conrad Heilmann, Stefan Wintein, Ruth Hinz and Erwin Dekker.

Jan Tinbergen (1903-1994) and the Rise of Economic Expertise, Cambridge University Press, 2021, by Erwin Dekker.

Jan Tinbergen: Een econoom op zoek naar vrede, Boom, 2021, by Erwin Dekker.

Mens & Maatschappij, founded in 1925, publishes articles representative of the entire social sciences research field. Tinbergen’s 1930 article was published in this journal.

The project Jan Tinbergen: the thinker investigates the philosophy of economics of Jan Tinbergen. The project is supported by ESPhil, EIPE, ESE, Erasmus Initiative “Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity” and the Erasmus Trustfunds.

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