Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | January 29, 2012

More notes on “fairness”

After posting my piece yesterday on taxes and fairness, I saw Jazz Shaw’s piece on the topic.  It impressed me that he mentioned he was still thinking through the whole issue:

…the premise [that “we want everything to be fair”] relies heavily on how we choose to define the word “fair” and what sort of taxes we’re talking about here. (And to be clear, I’m still sorting through some of this because it’s hardly a simple, cut and dried issue.)

I agree that it’s not a cut and dried issue, largely because it cuts across multiple unarticulated premises about human life in general, and the relation between man and the state.  I also got interesting responses from readers at both the Green Room and my home blog.  Reader KGB provided a quote from P.J. O’Rourke’s book Eat the Rich:

So if wealth is not a worldwide round-robin of purse snatching, and if the thing that makes you rich doesn’t make me poor, why should we care about fairness at all?  We shouldn’t.

Fairness is a good thing in marriage and at the day-care center.  It’s a nice little domestic virtue. But a liking for fairness is not that noble a sentiment.  Fairness doesn’t rank with charity, love, duty, or self-sacrifice.  And there’s always a tinge of self-seeking in making sure that things are fair.  Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.

At The Optimistic Conservative, reader Cousin Vinnie asks the following:

At the risk of sounding like a liberal, if you are going to have taxes of any kind, you cannot completely avoid the fairness debate. Is it fairer to tax citizens’ current income (which most folks use to get by day-to-day), their current purchases or other economic activity (which increases the cost of barely getting by as well as living high on the hog), or to tax inheritance (which people probably are not relying on for subsistence)?

The variety of responses and thoughts out there is enlightening.  It is worth thinking long and hard about, that although the Obama administration proposes to “make things fair,” we don’t have a consensus on what fairness is – in the generic – or what anyone should be doing about it.

One of the most interesting aspects of this debate is that relatively few commentators tie the Obama “fairness” argument to the political tactics of collectivist ideologues.  Those tactics were once very well known: take a word or expression that people think we all know the meaning of – justice, democracy, peace, fairness – and appropriate it for militant statist schemes that actually portend something very different.  With this kind of political bait-and-switch fraud, you can gain control over the people that they had no idea they were ceding.  This has been the method of socialists for decades.

In the current case, for example, the Obama administration wants us to focus on “taxes” as we discuss disparities between rich and poor, and to predicate the whole debate on “fairness.”  We think we know what is meant by these terms.

But given the background and the trend of sentiments expressed by Obama and those in his administration, it is entirely reasonable to assess that what is important to them is not “taxes,” specifically, but “disparities between rich and poor,” and the association of “fairness” with giving the central government a charter to intervene in those disparities.  Taxes are a specific case on which to establish a general principle: that cultivating “fairness” requires government intervention.

We are justified in opposing this approach on principle.  But we should also take care to think comprehensively about “fairness” and what that means to communal life.  The public debate today is predicated – and I mean this in a clinical, analytical way – on a kindergarten-level understanding of the concept.  We speak about fairness as if the context is that we all showed up in a kindergarten classroom, and during play time, the bigger or more aggressive kids got hold of all the good play items, and the teacher had to enforce a “redistribution” because that wasn’t “fair.”

Even when conservatives viscerally reject this idea of “fairness” as a model for adult relations, we can’t always articulate alternative ideas about fairness.  The kindergarten model comes to us naturally, early in life, and in my experience, it takes years of upbringing – moral teaching, the cultivation of attitudes and beliefs – to supplant it.  Without that upbringing, we don’t formulate a compelling alternative idea about fairness.  We just keep seeing the world as a kindergarten classroom, in which an authority figure either is or is not enforcing “fairness.”

It isn’t possible to cover the topic comprehensively in a single post, but I propose we start with considering the following questions relating to fairness, as a means of evaluating its place in life and politics.

1.  Is fairness properly cultivated as a condition or an attitude?  The adult world once had a ready answer to that question.  Children were taught that we should take care to be fair with others (the attitude), but that life – in terms of events, outcomes, and other people – wouldn’t necessarily be fair (the condition).

Is it really possible to impose a condition of fairness on the world around us?  It is unquestionably possible for each of us as an individual to behave fairly, to the extent we can manage to – fairly, that is, according to our individual consciences and what we have been taught about how to treat our fellow men.  But no matter how fair we seek to be, there will continue to be unfair outcomes, and many of them will be out of our control.

The P.J. O’Rourke quote gets at a principle of both Christianity and Judaism, which is that God’s primary interest is in the attitude with which each one of us does things.  God can cause any external condition He wants to; His highest concern is our spiritual and moral development as individuals.  The Proverbs are full of instructions to individuals to be fair-minded in various situations, but there is no attainable condition of corporate “fairness.”

The West has had a dichotomous approach, however, to the condition-versus-attitude question.  A very accessible discussion of the twin trends in Western thinking is in Balint Vazsonyi’s 1998 book America’s 30 Years War, which distinguishes outcomes-based ideas of law and human relations from those based on eternal principles for decision-making.

Vazsonyi traces the outcomes-based ideas through early law systems from Hammurabi’s to the Egyptian pharoahs’ and those of Imperial Rome, up to the Napoleonic Code and the modern variants of socialism.  Then, from the Law of Moses through the democratic ideas of ancient Greece, the republican concepts of pre-imperial Rome, the moots of the medieval Germanic tribes, and the pragmatic common-law provisions of the Anglo-Saxon heritage, Vazsonyi outlines persistent threads in the type of law that does not pretend to control outcomes, but rather chooses decision-making methods that will, as far as possible, suppress bias in favor of fair-mindedness.  Hence, for example, legislatures that face reelection often; separation of government powers; 12-person juries and courts of appeal.

(For another synoptic view of Western thinking on this and related topics, see David Gress’s substantially longer From Plato to NATO, also published in 1998.)

The “attitude” focus recognizes human relations and government as interactions in which the moral worth and choices of individuals are paramount; the “condition” focus sees society and government as systems that produce outcomes, and the systems’ mechanisms and outcomes as paramount.

 2.  Are “fairness” and “equality” synonymous?  This question has been widely discussed in America in recent years.  I think most readers have a good idea of the points of argument on this topic; e.g., is it really “fair” for one person to be paid the same as another person who isn’t doing as good a job?  If numerical equality defines fairness, then what about the fact that some people have IQs of 86 and others have IQs of 172?  Do we redress this unfairness by some means unrelated to IQ?  Etc, etc.  This may be a less intellectually challenging question than some others – we all understand that people are different by nature – but it is remarkable how often we allow it to go unasked.

We also prize equality before the law.  But is that mainly because equality is “fair,” or is it because we understand the dangers inherent in the power of the state, and that evil can be amplified through it if the law is allowed to treat individual citizens differently for biased and invidious reasons?  We do think of equality before the law as fair, but the historically demonstrated danger of not having it – the danger to life, property, and social harmony – is the decisive consideration.

3.  In human life or government, does failing to make “fairness” the goal of a proposal inherently mean that the proposal is unfair, or will produce unfair outcomes?  An analogous question would be:  If you’re not on a weight-reduction diet, does that inherently mean that you’re fat?

Consider that men in the United States have to register with the Selective Service Board.  The purpose of this program is to ensure that the US can draft soldiers in a time of need.  It is no part of the purpose of the registration program to ensure “fairness” of any particular kind, but neither is its intention to operate “unfairly.”  Its purpose is narrow and pragmatic: register potential soldiers with the federal government.

Does that make it unfair?  Can it only be fair if those designing the program thought specifically about “fairness” and made specific provisions for it?  If they did so, what kinds of “fairness” must they have taken into consideration, in order for their program or its outcomes to be deemed “fair”?

How about traffic fines?  They are intended to discourage reckless driving.  But they may fall unfairly on the drivers of red sports cars or old clunkers, who attract more attention from the police than drivers of mid-size, late-model sedans.  Should our traffic laws take into account the unfairness of being targeted for driving a Z-Roadster?  Should lawmakers have capped the percentage of traffic fines that can be assessed on speeders driving enormous, belching 1971 Buicks?

4.  Is “unfair” being used to mean “doesn’t favor or disfavor the things I would”?  Very often, we call things “unfair” that are the result of policies we don’t agree with.  Taxation perennially falls under this heading.  It isn’t possible to tax the people without levying a burden.  That’s what government is:  overhead that you have to pay for.  We just have different ideas about the right way to do it.

As an example, I regard a percentage-based income tax that requires the government to know every last cent of a taxpayer’s income as a bad policy – because it encourages government to grow and the people to be complacent about that.  I don’t call it “unfair,” however, nor do I imagine government can function without revenue.  I dislike the policy for reasons other than conventional ideas of “fairness.”

Likewise, others may disagree with a policy of taxing retail sales, seeing that as a discouraging burden on commerce.  Others prefer not to tax real property, viewing that as government holding a hammer over our property rights.  There are many reasons to object to types of taxes, but none of them is nearly as likely to hinge on “fairness” as on policy preferences.

There is no rate or type of taxation that’s absolutely “fair” as opposed to “unfair.”  Different types and rates of taxation, and different kinds of deductions, produce different results.  Some may be good and some bad, but not necessarily fair or unfair.  The percentage-based income tax, for example, has produced an unequal tax code, along with societal acceptance of an interventionist role for government between us and what we earn.  In the private sector, taxing income is a way of taxing production, which translates into suppressing production on the margin.  Are these things “unfair” – or are they dangerous and dysfunctional, from a particular policy standpoint?

5.  Is it possible to “reason” our way into putting “fairness” in the proper perspective, without adopting an attitude about it on principle?  I would submit that it is not.  In neither our personal lives nor in politics can we behave as if our reasoning and bargaining powers will lead us to perfect situational perspectives on fairness.

If we let fairness in the door as a controlling quantity, human history suggests that we will never meet its rigorous standard.  Nothing can ever be “fair” enough, because there will always be someone who isn’t happy with the current conditions, and can point out an undeniable situational disparity of one kind or another.

The sensation of unfairness comes from deep within the human consciousness.  But it cannot be assuaged by any perfect reordering of material conditions.  Indeed, when material conditions are promptly reordered in response to our childhood complaints about unfairness, that only encourages us to base our happiness on specific material conditions – and complain more and more readily at the drop of a hat.  On the other hand, when we learn to deal with unfairness under the tutelage of good-hearted, fair-minded adults, what we come away appreciating is the trust and sense of safety their fair-mindedness engenders in us, even though things aren’t always fair.

Fairness cannot be enforced, nor unfairness requited, by the actions of the state.  Politics doesn’t lead us, through its inherent clash of competing biases, to a universal standard of fairness.  It merely enforces one set of policy ideas over another.  The tendency of all of us to treat each other unequally in one way or another (many of them utterly benign) is not itself a reason for government to intervene between us, but rather for government – which is just other people to whom we have given authority – to be limited in what it can do to us, period.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.


  1. With all due respect (and I mean that sincerely), you give the president way too much credit. Hs fairness shtick is a debating point only, to which a reasonable reply is, “What proportion of income taxes does he believe the top 1% ought to pay? What about the top 5%? 10%? 25%? 50%? Etc. Is it “fair” fr the bottom 50% to pay nothing? Please explain.”

    Make him define “fairness” explicitly and give a rational bass for it.

    He will either answer these questions, thus allowing for a reasoned debate, or he will bob and weave because he is not serious. In which case these questions should be posed to his proxies. Make them commit, too.

    “Fairness” does not come with an objective or scientific definition. It’s inherently political. Let’s have a political debate about it. But that debate cannot begin until he defines what he means by “fair”.

  2. The President has clearly signalled what he considers fair. I should also add that it is clear that he was referring to what is fair in the context of contributing to paying for the cost of running the country. He was not advocating using the tax system to impose some idea of fairness as to entitlement.
    The present system where the middle-classes shoulder a disproportionate share of the tax burden is not fair unless you happen to be one of the super-rich who have the Republicans so enthrall with their campaign contributions . Cain’s idea of an irreducable flat rate for everyone with no exemptions would be fairer than the present set-up. Lord Romneycare of Zurich and Grand Caiman is a prime example of everything that is wrong and unfair with our tax-system.

    • Even if your fanciful interpretation of BHO’s recurrent platitudes is correct, how is fairness in paying the cost of running the country determined? If, unlike the Obama’s, I’m wealthy but still send my children to public schools, why should I pay more for their education than some other less affluent parent? Where’s the equality in that? By your way of thinking, it would make sense to have different license plates on cars that would determine the tax paid on gas purchases. A nouveau riche Wall Street trader in a Ferrari would pay maybe $8 a gallon in taxes while some single mom in an old Tempo wouldn’t pay any at all. Same goes for cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, make the rich pay.

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