PATTERSON: The price of ‘fairness’

In the real world, equality often means everyone is deprived

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

View results

President Obama is big on fairness. “Fair” or some variant thereof was mentioned eight times in his State of the Union speech, more than “health care” (twice), his signature legislative accomplishment, or “spending” (three times), the nation’s most pressing problem.

Mr. Obama claims, in fact, that the issue of fairness is the “defining issue of our time.” The president gives us a stark, if fallacious, choice:

“No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Mr. Obama then laid out his prescription for creating this “fair” society - more government. New bureaucracies (a “trade enforcement unit”), more training programs, more infrastructure stimulus spending, more regulations on the financial and energy sectors and, of course, more taxes: “[W]e need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes,” the president righteously intoned. Of course, the top 10 percent of earners already pay 70 percent of federal income taxes, a sum many people might conclude is “more than their fair share,” but never mind.

This effort to impose fairness on society by all-knowing, all-caring government functionaries has been tried many times. It never ends well, and comedian Louis C.K. tells a story that illustrates why. As Louis tells the story in one of his stand-up specials (I paraphrase here from memory), his daughter once accidentally broke one of her toys and then demanded that Louis break her sibling’s toy “to make it fair.”

Wow. From the mouths of babes, a perfect example of how the impulse to “fairness” - seemingly so benign in theory - in practice often leads to disaster.

Nature is not fair. It dispenses talent, intellect and luck unequally among the people of the world. As a result, some will always end up with more than others. When government sets out to impose “fairness” on society, it is therefore faced with a dilemma. It is impossible to make some people smarter, luckier and more talented. It is equally impossible to stop those blessings from being bestowed in the first place. The only recourse for government, then, is to destroy or confiscate the material rewards that so often accrue as a consequence of such qualities. Fairness to all, then, is really punishment for many.

This is the reason political systems that have as their explicit charter the imposition of fairness often descend into totalitarianism - total government power is the only way to enforce total equality. In such a state, misery and material want will be the norm; everyone will be equally unhappy, like Louis C.K.’s two children, each with a broken toy.

We should keep all of this in mind when we hear politicians like Mr. Obama lament the “inequality” in our society, and we should always look askance at their solutions to this alleged problem. We should remember that material equality does not necessarily mean prosperity or stability. As Charles Lane noted recently in The Washington Post: “Western Europe’s recent history suggests that flat income distribution accompanies flat economic growth. Which European country recorded the biggest decrease in inequality between 1985 and 2008? That would be Greece.”

And we all know how well that’s working out.

Matt Patterson is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and senior editor at the Capital Research Center.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus
TWT Video Picks
You Might Also Like
  • Maureen McDonnell looks on as her husband, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, made a statement on Tuesday after the couple was indicted on corruption charges. (associated press)

    PRUDEN: Where have the big-time grifters gone?

  • This photo taken Jan. 9, 2014,  shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gesturing as he answers a question during a news conference  at the Statehouse in Trenton.  Christie will propose extending the public school calendar and lengthening the school day in a speech he hopes will help him rebound from an apparent political payback scheme orchestrated by key aides. The early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will make a case Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014, that children who spend more time in school graduate better prepared academically, according to excerpts of his State of the State address obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    BRUCE: Bombastic arrogance or humble determination? Chris Christie’s choice

  • ** FILE ** Secretary of State Hillary Rodham testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

    PRUDEN: The question to haunt the West

  • Get Breaking Alerts