LITTLE ROCK — A central problem in the “fairness” debate stems from the refusal (perhaps inability?) of those propelling it to define what the word means.
To say that the current level of income inequality is “unfair” only makes sense, for instance, if you have in mind a reasonable conception of what a fair distribution of income would look like. To complain that income inequality has grown compared to 30 years ago only makes sense if we begin with the assumption that income 30 years ago was more “fairly” distributed.
What the proponents of “fairness” are really arguing, then, is that fairness must be defined in terms of degree of equality.
Why this should be so is never explained, as there is no intrinsic reason for assuming that those who have less should have more or that those who have more should have less.
In the classrooms in which I spend a fair amount of time, there is, along these lines, no reason to believe that those who receive poor grades have been treated less “fairly” than those who receive good ones, nor any assumption that those grades should be changed or determined differently in order to make them more equal. Many may resist the conclusion, but equality is not equivalent to, or even necessarily part of, concepts like justice or “fairness.”
Using equality as a barometer of societal fairness also ignores the fact that the term has different meanings for different people.
The original understanding of equality, upon which the American founding was based, meant only “equal protection” under the law. In such a conception there was no pretense that everyone was equal in ability or character, only that everyone would have the same basic (inalienable) rights. The “natural inequalities” flowing from our “different and unequal faculties for acquiring property” would be accepted and it was considered inevitable as well as just (“fair”) that some would get more than others.
Thus, in the “equal protection” framework there was acceptance of considerable income inequality, but also efforts to prevent such inequality from undermining equality of rights and status before the law (what the Founders called “unnatural inequality”).
At the opposite extreme is the form of equality known as “equality of condition,” the central goal of the political left since at least Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Based on the idea that the only “fair” society is one in which everyone has roughly the same amount of wealth, this version of equality necessarily allocates great power to the state in order to redistribute resources.
Although few liberals today would openly embrace this particular version of equality (in part because of its less than-admirable historical progeny), its influence can still be found in the way the left accepts redistribution of wealth (for the sake of “fairness”) as a primary function of government, considers whatever level of income inequality that exists at any given time to be unacceptable, and proves eager to grant government ever-greater power to remake society in a more egalitarian direction.
If we leave things at this point, it is relatively easy to understand from where both the right (equal protection) and left (equality of outcome) come at the equality issue. Problems arise, however, when we introduce that third, murkier and inherently problematic version called “equality of opportunity.”
Equality of opportunity is the most dangerous form of equality because it is the version that sounds most appealing in theory but is the most difficult to establish in practice. We can all agree that equal protection of the law is a worthy goal, even if it doesn’t go far enough to satisfy the left.
We can also debate in fairly straightforward manner whether we want to pursue equality of outcome and can even bring into that debate the results (invariably dismal) of previous efforts in different parts of the world to establish it.
But when we move onto the ambiguous terrain of equality of opportunity, all is lost, precisely because we don’t know what kinds of public polices it requires or where on the continuum between equal protection and equal outcomes to place it.
How far, for example, beyond equal protection does it require us to go in terms of granting additional powers to the state to take from some and give to others? And does its acceptance inexorably if unwittingly take us toward equal outcomes on the sly, through the back door?
In a free society where income is inevitably widely distributed, equal opportunity will never exist because the children of the rich will always have many more advantages then the children of the poor. A society truly dedicated to realizing equality of opportunity would consequently have to wage a determined war against those “natural inequalities” that flow from freedom itself, and which are transmitted in the form of better or worse prospects in life from generation to generation.
The crucial realization in all this is that life isn’t fair. The central threat to freedom comes from those who think they can use politics to make it so.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.