Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fairness Is a Minor Virtue

Tibor R. Machan

Few ideas serve more wicked purposes as “fairness.” In public policy it is probably the most overused justification for increasing the power of some people over others, for meddling in others’ private lives, and for being guiltlessly resentful.

Yes, there is some virtue to fairness, as when teachers grade and parents divide the desert fairly. In short, fairness is a minor administrative virtue, handy once bigger issues have been dealt with properly, like justice, liberty, and merit.

Unfortunately the childish concern with whether one is being treated fairly by one’s superiors keeps preoccupying the minds of adults after they aren’t supposed to have superiors at all, after they are grown and reached the age of their own reason. At that stage, they are supposed to worry about how to direct their own lives, not whether others are being fair with it. So they keep saying things like “Life is unfair,” as if there were still some parents standing about assigning them tasks, distributing burdens and benefits. But the fact that some of us are too short for reaching the apples on trees is not unfair, anymore than that some are too large to become jockeys even if that is what we would really, really like to be. This is just life, nothing to do with fairness versus unfairness.

Yet by thinking that fairness has to do with such matters, there is a very powerful temptation to campaign for remedies—let’s get Congress, city hall, the welfare state and so on to equalize things out for us all (except, of course, where it comes to the power it takes to become an equalizer). So when some people are very pretty, much prettier—or richer or faster or more talented—than others, they are resented for this—especially for the benefits that may come their way in consequences—and much too much effort is spent on creating that mythical level playing field so many public philosophers demand.

Which, as noted already, produces a class of really unequal folks, unequal in the one matter in which equality should reign, namely, power over others. In that, you see, no one ought to have more or less than the rest because, in the end, no one has the right to rule others past the time of childhood.

Someone I know reasonably well, the philosopher Paul Kurtz—a major leader of the secular humanist movement—has recently made much of the fact that some people make a lot of money but are not taxed progressively enough. (“Progressive,” in taxation, means expropriating not the same percentage but a lot more from those who are wealthy!) He keeps insisting that despite the objection of his libertarian pals, such a policy is only fair. The rich have more, so taking a lot more from them is fair, he thinks.

There is, of course, no end of the ambiguity and vagueness attendant to discussions about fairness. Some rich folks may well have far more important tasks than some poorer ones and thus could use a lot more dough. But never mind—there is no sensible measure of such unhinged fairness, period.

But more important is the fact that when it comes to being the victims of taxation—which is a relic of feudal times and now amounts to plain old extortion—the more who can escape, the better. That is like it was with military conscription. (Come to think of it, quite a few who understood this about the draft just don’t get it when the issue of taxation comes up!) Evil, vicious policies need to be stopped and short of that they need to be escaped, dodged, evaded. So during the draft it was a good thing to “unfairly” escape it.

Yes, Virginia, successful draft dodgers were right and tax dodgers are, as well! The rest of us are just unfortunate victims who aren’t managing to get out from under. There is nothing fair about subjecting us all to equal measures of villainy! Yet that is exactly what Professor Kurtz is promoting: “Tax them all and those with more, tax even more!” That’s just bunk. Tax them none and if it cannot be stopped, applaud those who can skip out on this nasty scheme of extortion of some people by others, not condemn them.

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