Just What Is "Fairness" Anyway?

“Fairness” appears to be Obama’s new buzzword for the 2012 campaign, but like “hope” and “change,” “fairness” is a word that no longer has a universal meaning:

  • If you are a leftist – like Obama – you are focused on results. Have we achieved racial and gender parity in our hiring practices? How big is the gap in earnings between the rich and the poor? How is wealth distributed in our society? Is it being monopolized by a few at the top?
  • If, on the other hand, you are conservative – like me or SABR Matt – you are focused on the process. A process-oriented perspective considers the left’s results-oriented questions to be basically meaningless. “Fairness,” according to this viewpoint, is not achieving sameness at the end of the great chain of causality; instead, it’s a matter of following a uniform set of rules and giving people what they are due based on their individual talents and hard work.

Now, contrary to popular left-wing belief, we conservatives do acknowledge that there is “unfairness” in our current system. We are simply focused on a different array of solutions. Consider Warren Buffet’s complaint that he pays less in taxes, percentage-wise, than his secretary. Granted, leftists tend to exaggerate the scope of that particular problem because it serves their purposes politically, but it is in fact the case that some wealthy individuals – and their attorneys – take advantage of our Byzantine tax code to avoid their personal tax burden. So if we stipulate that this is a problem, how do we solve it? Well, if you’re Obama, you just want to slap on a band-aid. If some rich people aren’t paying their “fair share,” says Obama, we should add a whole new tax they won’t be able to escape. We conservatives, meanwhile, see things differently. We believe that it is the complexity of the process that is generating the “unfairness,” and as such, we don’t support the addition of yet another tax. Instead, we believe in simplifying the tax code we already have. We believe in getting rid of the loopholes – which are more likely to be exploited by rich people and their aforementioned attorneys – and making the process of paying one’s taxes more predictable.

Every once in a while, you will see a superficial similarity between right and left — but the key word there is superficial. The left-wingers of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the right-wingers of the Tea Party movement both consider the Wall Street bailouts to be offensive, for example, but the reasons behind that opinion are completely different. As far as I can tell, the OWS protestors don’t like the Wall Street bailouts not because they find government handouts of that nature to be wrong in general, but because they went to rich people who work in an industry that supports the capitalist apparatus they personally abhor. Has any OWS protestor ever complained about the bailout money that went to General Motors? Has any OWS protestor ever complained about the money that was wasted on the now defunct Solyndra? The Tea Partiers, on the other hand, oppose government bailouts of any type because they make the process unfair. As soon as you allow the government to pick and choose winners and losers in our economy, government officials will immediately begin funneling cash to their political backers, and certain businesses will be rendered exempt from the brush clearing which sustains the free market (to harken back to SABR Matt’s forest fire metaphor). According to the Tea Party mindset, the Wall Street bailouts, the GM bailout, and the money that went to Solyndra are all of a piece. They are all rewards for Obama’s best buddies — and in the first two cases, they shielded certain corporations from pressures that would’ve forced beneficial changes.

The source of the differences between right and left boils down to anthropology. We conservatives believe that people are born inherently unequal, and as such, we don’t expect equal results. Instead, we believe our duty is to ensure that everyone can play whatever hand they are dealt in a system in which the rules are the same for everyone. We believe that a person’s ethnicity or social class matters less than the family unit – which, when properly functional, transmits the work ethic that makes success possible – and the talents of the person himself. A leftist, on the other hand, believes we are born blank slates. Leftists don’t acknowledge, for example, that there are biological differences between men and women that result, on average, in different aptitudes and different temperaments, and so they are always outraged whenever a particular industry fails to achieve gender parity. At the same time, the leftist viewpoint considers your social class and ethnicity to be large, central, and deterministic. If you are born a minority, then your only hope for success is a hand up from the government via affirmative action. If you are born white and affluent, any of your successes will henceforth be considered unmerited — merely the consequences of your good luck. Meanwhile, individual characteristics like industry, competence, and persistence tend to be de-emphasized.

Some people may accuse me of constructing a straw-man when it comes to the left, but I don’t think that’s the case. My reason? Leftist policy proposals would only make sense if, deep down, most leftists believed what I just outlined above. It makes sense to confiscate and redistribute wealth in the name of “fairness” only if that wealth is unearned. If, on the other hand, an individual’s native abilities and willingness to put his nose to the grindstone factor into his success, then it is fundamentally unjust to take his wealth and give it to others who may not be worthy of the largesse.

Make no mistake: There are many elements of the process of wealth creation that need to be made more fair. Most importantly, the practice of giving government subsidies and other special favors to pet industries needs to stop. But Obama and his supporters don’t really care about that kind of “fairness.” Oh, they may say they care, but their actions certainly belie their words. No — what the left really cares about is the sort of “fairness” in which certain members of an anointed class are handed the power to decide who “deserves” to be successful. And is this really what you want for America? If your answer is no, then you need to vote for Obama’s opponent in 2012.

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