Fair Is So Unfair

President Obama as the detached arbiter of economic justice.

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address maintained that a “return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility will help us protect our people and our economy.” A theme of the speech focused upon rectifying injustice in the economy. The president mentioned some variant of “fair” eight times throughout the speech. The word was ubiquitous; its definition, elusive. Fair can be so unfair like that.

Obama wants an America where everyone gets “a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.” But how do “we” reclaim “fair” when everyone seems to have a conflicting opinion on just what it is?

“Be fair,” like “be reasonable,” is another way of saying “Do what I want you to do.” It’s a command that sounds like a plea.

Occupy Wall Street complains that it’s unfair that the richest one percent enjoys eleven percent of U.S. income (and an even greater share of wealth). The National Taxpayers Union complains that the richest one percent pays thirty-seven percent of federal taxes (and an even greater share of total taxes). Fairness for the former would mean decreasing that income share by increasing taxes. Fairness for the latter would mean increasing that income share by decreasing taxes. Everyone agrees on fairness but disagrees on its meaning.

Manufacturers may find “fair” trade fair, but consumers don’t. The Fairness Doctrine appeals to liberals but not conservatives. An employee, but not the employer, may endorse a “fair” wage. The wealthy paying their “fair” share in taxes sounds fair to the recipients of government largesse but not to the funders of it. Fairness is often self-interest masquerading as the common good.

Fairness is one of those words that says more about the speaker than about what is spoken. Conflating one’s interested perspective for the disinterested arbiter of the proper balance is actually quite unfair. Never does partiality play impartiality better than when dressed up as fairness. Those petitioning others to be fair generally don’t take into consideration the interests of the others but want others to bow to their interests. It bespeaks an inability to walk in another’s shoes. At the same time, the invoker of “fairness” imagines himself above the fray. It is a word suited for a parent but not a president.

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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