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People invoking “fairness” into debates about economics generally seek to empower the powerful. But they do this with the desire to be seen as empowering the powerless. Rather than the democracy of the free market determining fairness, the autocracy of government planners does. In a market economy, supply and demand determine price. If workers deem a business’s wages too low, they can and do take their skills to competing businesses. If consumers deem a product overpriced, they can and do spend their money on competing products. An American market of 311 million buyers and sellers effectively votes on the price of labor, goods, and services every day. This is freedom.
In contrast to freedom is what the president calls fairness. Here, the government, rather than the market, determines how much income is too much, whether a “green” company rakes in the green or not, and the wisdom of outsourcing jobs. One grasps the appeal of such a philosophy for President Obama. He, rather than millions of Americans, decides what companies to invest in (Solyndra, GM, Evergreen Solar), and how much income is too much income. One man by remote hubristically imagines himself better equipped to make the decisions that the free market empowers everybody to make. A person usurps a society’s prerogative to pick winners and losers. “Fairness” in the mouth of a politician is ultimately about control.
The philosopher John Rawls defined “justice as fairness.” This is a transparent way of infusing moral superiority into one’s position without actually taking a position. What is justice? Fairness. What is fairness? Justice. Something similar is at work in the president’s fondness for fairness. The amorphous term finds universal approval. But once it is pursued it is bound to spark disagreement as universal. Behind both the philosopher and the president’s conception of fairness stands envy. What’s a virtue in one outlook is a deadly sin in another.
More than 311 million Americans gain greater power over their own lives through freedom. A few people in Washington gain greater power over the lives of 311 million Americans through the doctrine of “fairness.” That’s not very fair, now, is it?
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