For as long as there has been an American party of the left, it has been associated with an obsession with the notion of “fairness” and a related hatred of social and economic inequality of condition, which is often closely allied with envy and even hatred of the “rich”. This began long before the late John Rawls, but he was one of the more recent and most articulate philosophers of fairness, and his A Theory of Justice (1971) is a classic in the field. One of the signature principles for which he is best known is the “difference principle”, which provides that inequalities in distribution of social and economic goods should be allowed only to the extent that they directly improve the condition of the least advantaged members of society. This has grown to be the left’s underlying basis for a definition of “fairness” in public policy. A current devotee of Rawls is Ronald Dworkin, whose views on distributive justice can be summarized by a quote from his book, Sovereign Virtue: “a distribution of wealth that dooms some citizens to a less than fulfilling life than others, no matter what choices they make, is unacceptable, and the neglect of equality in contemporary politics is therefore shameful”.
Does this resonate with any rhetoric that we have heard lately? Well, it should, because essentially all of the Obama administration’s domestic policy is drenched in it. It is not far from the surface in almost every pronouncement and proposal, from taxation to budgets to financial regulation to energy to employment policy to education to health care.
There is an antidote to this madness and, as usual, Thomas Sowell is here when we need him. He has recently written a series of essays under the title, “The Fallacy of Fairness” in which he totally discredits the notions of distributive justice described by Rawls and his followers and goes even further in illustrating the futility of the pursuit of fairness by describing the ways in which the discrimination of nature itself dwarfs any form of discrimination conceived by man. His conclusion is that fairness as equal treatment does not produce fairness as equal outcomes, and that the confusion between the two meanings of the word has created enormous mischief, much of it at the expense of the lagging groups of people in our society. Much more of Sowell on the subject can be found in his 1999 book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, which historically shows how confused conceptions of “fairness”, equality, and justice consistently end up promoting injustice and inequality.
Studies conducted in recent years and reported by Arthur C. Brooks of Syracuse University reveal that, contrary to the claims of the fairness cult, to focus public policy on inequality instead of opportunity is to make a serious error, one that will worsen the problem we hope to solve. In fact, the survey data tell us that economic mobility, not equality, is associated with happiness among the population. These findings and the common sense analysis of the historical development of cultures and political economy are pretty conclusive on the means by which opportunity and mobility are enhanced, but some people will never learn and some don’t want to.