The misleading and dismal concept of “fairness”

The Liberal Democrats have been telling us they want to “hardwire fairness back into national life.” Britain, for all its many strengths, they argue, “is still too unequal and unfair a country where the circumstances of your birth and the income of your parents still profoundly affect your chances in life.”

Although the government should remove certain obstacles to fairness in society (legal privileges and so on), it is something else again to enforce fairness. This can only be done by creating a state-run machinery for determining deserts and entitlements which would, in practice, play to the gallery of the many special interest groups in modern Britain. In adopting its “fairness” agenda, Nick Clegg’s party seems to view capitalism as a zero-sum game in which every winner produces a loser or in which success always comes at the expense of the poor and the state has to sort out the resulting position and make it “fair”.

The Liberal Democrats seem to adhere to John Rawls, the great egalitarian magician, and his “principle that undeserved inequalities call for redress; and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for…Those who have been favoured by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.”

Accordingly, the Lib Dems are asking everybody to hand to them the natural power over their livelihood and allow them to undertake “radical action” in order to make Britain fairer according to their “plan”. At issue here is nothing less than the struggle between the rule of law, as Edmund Burke once understood it, and the rule of leveller egalitarianism – the battle between different individual skills and talents in free competition for excellence and the envious cry for “fairness” that throttles creativity and breeds resentment of achievement. It is interesting that the party rarely – if ever – mentioned freedom in its election campaign. The reason is clear. The pursuit of fairness – in the way desired by the Lib Dems – and the pursuit of freedom are in conflict.

Correct and well said.This is one of my biggest problems with some LibDems, the idea they are “just” and should have the power to right wrongs regardless of peoples basic freedoms and the Rule of Law. Watching the LibDems of Ealing speak in the most high handed, patronising and self-serving way about Toby Young’s West London Free School project was enough to a) make the flesh creep and b) to sear the “neither Liberal nor Democratic” meme into ones consciousness.

Why is ‘fairness’ (which usually seems to mean socialism) not to be applied on a universal basis? In practice it just boils down to national socialism. Pointing that fact out always seems to annoy Liberal Democrats.In the long run, the poor gain far more financially from economic growth than from egalitarian redistribution. So let’s not have still more taxes penalising enterprise and growth. There will always be plenty of economic inequality (differences) in a free society. Some people will earn more than others; some people will save more than others; and some people will live longer than others. Learn to live with it.

Of course we all have a different view of what is meant by “fairness”. As such the pursuit of fairness by the coercive political system simply leads to conflict. If we can all agree to live in freedom then, as Mises put it, we have a society where economic resources are allocated peacefully, by agreement. All pacifists (Quakers and so on) should be economic liberals.

I’m somewhat troubled by the rejection of fairness in this post and these comments. It seems that if classical liberals/libertarians reject fairness than we wrongly give the left exclusive ownership of the concept. My problem with the Lib Dems’ policies is not the aspiration of fairness, but that the proposed policies are inherently unfair; forcibly taking property that is legitimately owned and giving it to people who have no legitimate claim to it strikes me as inherently unfair. Surely fairness demands that people have right to their property that has been acquired justly, something entirely consistent with classical liberal/libertarian principles.

I seem to recall ALL the main political parties emphasising the word ‘fairness’ (in their slogans and rhetoric) and very little was heard of ‘freedom’

What do you think about the unfairness created by the systematic theft of land and use of force to create a working class then?
That is not pure accident of birth – it is the result of hundreds of years of anti-liberal, anti-free market action.It is high time libertarians and free market liberals reconnected with the radicalism of the past and recognised the subsidy of history which so distorts our world.The response to these histories however should not be tax and spend but removing the existing privileges of the rich and powerful and having a free market, not this rigged, regulated market which acts in favour of business and against the initiative of the poorer individual.

In the long run, the poor gain far more financially from economic growth than from egalitarian redistribution. So let’s not have still more taxes penalising enterprise and growth.Two rejoinders come to mind:
1) There’s more than financial gain to life. It may sound trite, but it is true that money doesn’t buy happiness. There is a wealth of evidence that greater quality promotes greater happiness.2) Can we get rid of the subsidy to business and established interests as well? Get rid of the regulations which prevent small entrepreneurs from setting up shop? Stop subsidising transport for the supermarkets? Remove the absurd intellectual property laws which prevent innovation?

Of course it’s true that there’s more to life than financial gain; but I reiterate that, in the long run, the poor (who, of course, are not always the same people) are likely to gain far more financially from economic growth than from redistribution. If you aren’t interested in the poor being financially better off, you should forget about redistribution anyway.By all means get rid of most subsidies and regulations. New and small businesses would benefit from lower business taxes and fewer regulations, which would enable them to grow faster and thus challenge the established giants (who often welcome regulations as a means of protection).

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