Now here’s something on which we can all agree: Fairness. It’s the basis for public appeals without number. I hear that the rich should pay their fair share of the tax burden – and why not? Workers should get a fair wage, which beats the alternative. Fair Wisconsin is fighting for fairness (fairly?) for LGBT Wisconsinites. Minorities should have a fair shot at employment opportunities, which seems only fair. Fairness, it seems, is in vogue.
Fair enough. I think I’ll take this one out for a spin and see how it works for me. I love Friesians (a majestic breed of horses; massive, powerful, and graceful beyond belief), but I don’t have one. Not likely to either – I have a mortgage and five children who plan on college educations and expect to eat every day. I just can’t afford all that and a Friesian. They’re just too darn expensive. And that’s not fair!
It’s not like I’m unwilling to pay a fair price. Just not the one the greedy owners are demanding. So . . . do I get my Friesian now? I hope you’re not in doubt of the answer – it’s “no.” A resounding, imperative, unequivocal (and saddening) “no.”
The answer is “no” for the same reason that requiring the rich to pay their fair share of taxes might mean they should pay less. Or that the protesting employee might be entitled to no more than he is currently receiving. Or that marriage laws just possibly ought to remain as they are.
Here’s the rub with appeals to fairness. It’s not, as it turns out, a self-contained concept. By itself, it actually has no meaning whatsoever. When we say something is fair (or unfair), we are judging circumstances against an external (and all-too-often unspoken) standard. To the extent circumstances deviate from that standard, we call them unfair.
Let’s take taxes for an example. We all agree that the rich should pay their fair share. But what, exactly, is that? What is that even conceptually? The top 5% of income earners pay more than 50% of all income tax. Is that fair?
We don’t often address the same demand to the non-rich, but surely we would all agree that they ought to pay their fair share of taxes too. We would, wouldn’t we? Or would we say the non-rich ought to pay an unfair share of taxes? Over 50 million earners pay no income tax at all, including those making as much as $50,000 a year. Is that fair?
We can only answer these questions if we first establish what the rich and the non-rich ought to pay. If you can’t identify the “ought,” you’ve got no fairness argument. Without reference to the standards that all appeals to fairness necessarily imply, “fairness” is nothing more than personal preference dressed up in moral guise.
I sure want that Friesian. But I can’t think of any moral standard that says I ought to have it notwithstanding my inability to pay the asking price. Which means I can’t demand that the owner accept less than he wishes, or that my neighbors help me pay for it.
Fairness-as-morality has invaded, and distorted, a wide swath of our public discourse, creating the illusion of moral consensus. But it’s only an ersatz morality, popular because it creates the desired look and feel without the inconvenience of identifying any actual standard.
That’s not all there is to say about this, of course. But don’t you worry, I’ll be returning to this subject from time to time. ’Twouldn’t be fair otherwise.