Against fairness

The Economist has a column against the idea of fairness as an organizing principle for government.

A sense of fairness, as any parent knows, develops irritatingly early. A wail of “It’s not fair!” is usually the first normative statement to come out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. People seem to be hard-wired to demand fairness. Studies in which people are offered deals that they regard as fair and unfair show that the former stimulate the reward centres in the brain; the latter stimulate areas associated with disgust.

For the British fair play is especially important: without it, life isn’t cricket . . . The French have taken to using le fair-play in sport, presumably because (as their coach’s refusal to shake hands with his opposite number after losing to South Africa suggested) their own culture finds the concept rather difficult. When talking politics, however, the French, like the Americans, tend to go for the more formal notion of justice. But fairness appeals to the British political class, for it has a common sense down-to-earthiness which avoids the grandiosity of American and continental European political discourse while aspiring to do its best for all men.

I didn’t realize that this was a societal difference between America and Britain, but if it is, good for us. (And for France, I suppose.)

Fairness is a pernicious concept because it is totally subjective. It can mean anything to anyone, so it really means nothing at all. Consider two children: Alice (age 15) and Bob (age 10). Alice’s bed time is 10:30, and Bob’s bed time is 10:00. Both children are unhappy: Bob because Alice’s bed time is later, and Alice because when she was 10 years old her bed time was only 9:30. It’s not fair.

In politics, progressives tend to put things in terms of fairness: The rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. What exactly would be their fair share is never stated, but it’s always higher than they are paying now. (In 2007, the top 10% paid 70% of the income tax.) Free trade isn’t fair trade. (Whatever that means.) We need a Fairness Doctrine to shut down conservative talk radio.

ASIDE: Even when progressives use the word “justice” (e.g., “social justice”), they usually don’t actually mean objective justice, but some sort of subjective concept — which is to say fairness. We need to defend the word “justice”. The left has perverted the word “liberal” to the exact opposite of its historical meaning, we can’t let them have “justice” as well.

The author shies away from a full-throated condemnation of fairness, but I think all this what he is getting at in his conclusion:

Yet the fact that everybody believes in fairness is a clue to what’s wrong with the notion. Like that other warm-blanket word, “community”, it signals limp thinking. What exactly is “fair” about restricting trade, for instance? Or “unfair” about letting successful people in business or other fields enjoy the fruits of their enterprise without punitive taxes?

“Fairness” suits Britain’s coalition government so well not just because its meanings are all positive, but also because—like views within the coalition—they are wide-ranging. To one lot of people, fairness means establishing the same rules for everybody, playing by them, and letting the best man win and the winner take all. To another, it means making sure that everybody gets equal shares.

Those two meanings are not just different: they are opposite. They represent a choice that has to be made between freedom and equality. Yet so slippery—and thus convenient to politicians—is the English language that a single word encompasses both, and in doing so loses any claim to meaning.

Fairness is fudge. This newspaper will have none of it. We reject the wide, woolly notion of fairness in favour of sharper, narrower words that mean what they say, like just or cruel.

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