One of the most insidious tools in the collectivist toolbox is the one called “fairness.” When someone in a political or financial situation tells you to “be fair,” you generally need to hold onto your money really tightly.
Fairness is one of those concepts that we learn as children and that everybody can agree is a good thing. The problem starts when some people get the arrogant notion that they should be the artibers of what’s fair — instead of the people who would otherwise be on the two sides of a mutual agreement.
People also use the word to intimidate people into agreeing with them. An example that irritates me is that of some non-profit organizations — most notably United Way, in my experience — pre-define the amount of money they say you should give to them as your “fair share.” I refuse to give to an agency such as that, and I’ve had a couple of confrontations with bosses in the distant past when they tried to intimidate me by saying that I was keeping a department or a company from having “100 percent participation.” This type of thing is implied extortion in which your boss and an agency collude to take money out of your pocket. But at least it’s still your choice in that case.
It gets really dangerous when people want government to enforce fairness. I ran into an example of that when a friend of a friend responded to me about the article I wrote last week about the free market helping the poor. He claimed I was factually wrong, but he didn’t address anything I said. He merely claimed I was wrong because the rich are still much richer than the poor, missing the whole point that even the poorest of the poor are better off in a free economy.
The guy who responded to me is probably very well-meaning. He honestly thinks it’s a terrible thing that some people do extremely well — sometimes for little or no reason — while others struggle and barely get by. (You can take a look at his website and his book if you’d like. He’s clearly toes the mainstream progressive Democratic party line.)
So how about it? Is it fair that some people do so much better than others? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It varies. Some people work for what they earn and give other people amazing value for what they make. Some people are lazy bums who don’t really deserve even what little they have. But there certainly are examples of unearned wealth — did anyone say Paris Hilton? — and examples of hard-working, desperate people in poverty.
The problem is that any solution is worse than the problem itself. Not only is it immoral to make decisions and force them on people, but the practical result is that wealth is destroyed. The more an economy is free, the more people create wealth, which eventually helps anyone willing to work for himself.
For me, the moral issue is enough. I don’t have the right to force you to give money to a third person or to force you to hire a person, for instance. That’s true even if I think it would be a good thing for that other person to have more money and even if I think you are unjustly wealthy. It’s theft to take away money or property which has been legally acquired, whether it’s a robber with a gun or a politician with a vote who does it.
When I deal with you, I’ll be as fair as I know how to be. Not only is it the right thing to do, but I know others won’t want to deal with me if they learn that I’m not fair. I’m going to keep giving time and money to the people and organizations who I feel led to give it to. I might even encourage you to give money to certain causes. And I’ll expect you to be fair with me when we have business dealings. I’m not going to deal with you if I understand that you’re not fair to deal with. What I’m not going to do, though, is ask someone else to use force (or threat of force) to make you make a deal with me that I’d like you to make.
Let’s not be afraid of the people who try to intimidate us by talking about fairness in the coercive sense. Let’s be willing to uphold it as a virtue to be pursued in our voluntary dealings with one another, but let’s not allow well-meaning busybodies to gain the power to enforce their own notions of fairness on the rest of the world, including us.