15 October 2012

The Fairness Doctrines

No one is ever going to run for office promising to be unfair to people. Some Republicans scoff at an idea of fairness that they attribute to liberals, but when they say "life is unfair" all they really mean is that it isn't fair in the way liberals want it to be. In the current Time magazine Jonathan Haidt tries to sort out not two but three different ideas of fairness at play in our political debates.  The closest thing to an objective, non-ideological idea is what Haidt calls "procedural fairness," defined as the state when "honest, open and impartial rules are used to determine who gets what, but what counts as "procedural fairness" is conditioned by ideological considerations. Liberals, Haidt argues, claim that procedural fairness is impossible without government efforts to "level the playing field" and rebuff efforts by the wealthy to "rig the game in their favor," while Republicans (Haidt uses "conservatives" but I try to maintain a distinction) see liberal efforts as rigging the game in a different way "to enforce equality of outcomes despite inequality of inputs." Republicans, Haid writes, believe above all in "proportional fairness," which ensures that "people get benefits in proportion to their contributions." Hence their hostility to the Marxian formula "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs." Needs don't determine your claim to benefits under the reign of proportional fairness; "inputs" justify "outputs" instead. Anything else is mooching. Liberals equate fairness with equality. Haidt distances liberals from mainstream Democrats by noting how President Obama "never talks about redistribution anymore" while "many liberals do." In one of his surveys, Haidt found people identifying themselves as "very liberal" were most likely to agree with the proposition, "Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money." While Haidt doesn't make the point in his op-ed, it seems clear that the liberal idea of fairness is needs-based. We all need the same things to survive, so everyone should get at least what they need, while those with much should give up some of what they have should their accumulation leave others without the necessities. It looks like the refusal of Republicans to base their notions of fairness on need is the crucial difference between the different ideals. For them, everything has to be earned or else you're a moocher, while the liberal or progressive sees preserving life as a societal and political imperative that overrides Republicans' less compassionate sense of fairness. I can't attribute that attitude to the "Left" in general because many radicals and Leninists are less compassionate about individual life. Republicans could make a logical argument against that liberal imperative if a liberal concedes that he would not require someone to do anything in order to survive, but most liberals (if not all) envision a society in which everyone contributes to the general good. The vision is either utterly idealistic, based on the assumption that everyone will just naturally find their special way to contribute, or it is necessarily statist, on the assumption that government, if necessary, will find a way for people to contribute, or allow them to contribute should other factors (e.g. discrimination) handicap them.  Neither alternative is likely to impress Republicans for whom the original sin of politics is the quest to get "something for nothing" -- even a job, I suspect. A more meaningful distinction between liberal and Republican ideas of fairness would recognize that Republican fairness is eternally rooted in the state of nature, whether they talk about the need to earn survival or the "natural rights" of those who've earned it, while the liberal idea is consistent with an idea of civilization itself as a necessary improvement on the state of nature based and depending upon a new idea of fairness. In short, liberal fairness is based on a premise that everyone must live, while the Republican idea is based on something else. Judge accordingly.

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