14 September 2013

No Fair!

Michael Brown of Colonie is a "Have." He outs himself on the letters page of the Albany Times Union, where he answers a previous writer who dared call self-conscious Haves like Brown a dangerous lot. He not only resents the slur, reminding readers that "I did not get these things. I earned them." He resents even more, it seems, the previous writer's demand that government "act fairly to all," which he interprets as a call for the redistribution of wealth. Brown may be a Have, but he's having none of that. To him, redistribution means "these things should be forcibly taken from me and given to people who choose not to work hard." This is objectionable, not just because being a Have-Not, in his view, is a purely voluntary matter, but also because "It is not the government's job to decide what is fair."

Whether or not that's the government's job depends a little on whether Brown believes in fairness at all, or if he's one of those who claims to live by the "life's not fair" credo. If the latter, he's really kidding himself, if not us. As I've noted before, the people who claim with a smug pretense to realism that life's not fair are exactly the ones who complain that any policy aimed at fairness is, in fact, unfair -- to them. You can hear that note in my quote from his letter; it would be unfair to take from him, after all his hard work, to give to someone who doesn't deserve to get anything. So let's agree that Brown and all the "life's not fair" camp actually do believe in some form of fairness. Very well; where does it come from? If it's not the government's job to identify fairness -- and let's observe that it should never be the job exclusively of elected officials, though they must, arguably, have the final word -- whose is it? Some may answer that it's no one's job -- that no one can just assert or declare by fiat what fairness should be -- because fairness is a fixed, natural quality. That isn't exactly consistent with a belief that life's not fair, especially if you translate that assertion, in order to make it true, to state that nature isn't fair.

Let's pause to clarify what the word "fair" means. When someone says that "life's not fair," what is he actually saying? The answer really depends on who is talking to whom, and when a Republican or libertarian is talking, "life's not fair" really means, "you can't have everything you want." Shift the emphasis one way or another and it might mean, "you're not entitled" or "you can't necessarily have anything you want, or need." The conservative assumption is that the left equates fairness with entitlement if not with equality.

So what do I mean by "nature isn't fair?" I'm addressing the implicit conservative (or Republican/libertarian) idea of fairness, which might be summarized as "I should keep what I earn." Does nature allow you to keep what you earn? Presuming that in nature you actually can "earn" something in the Lockean sense, nature itself makes no guarantee that you can keep it. If there really is such a thing as a natural law of human relations, it is that strength always prevails, even if the stronger one, or the stronger group, hasn't earned what it takes. Nature might well argue, were it more argumentative, that taking by force is the only form of "earning" it recognizes. Some people argue that you can infer from nature the rules that ought to exit, which are the only ones that should exist, but I think those people can safely be ignored. It makes more sense to recognize that the rule of fairness that forms the basis of property rights -- that I should keep what I earn and am thus entitled to protection for my earnings -- goes against whatever passes for fairness in nature. If people make laws based on this premise, then their government has "decided what is fair" in apparent violation of Michael Brown's rule. But people like Brown have been getting away with this contradiction for so long that they've come to think their own invention equivalent to the state of nature itself, and no invention of theirs.  Any alternative idea of fairness inevitably looks like self-interested interference with immutable law. But as I've demonstrated, it's easy to show that their idea of fairness is little more than self-serving rationalization. It's up to people like Brown to demonstrate why their ideal of the preservation of "earned" property is more fair, more just, more whatever, than an ideal based on the preservation of life. If they have no better argument than the old canard that some people will get something for nothing, or that everyone would live off handouts and no one would work, they ought to hit the books before writing to the paper again. That may sound unfair, but I'm just trying to keep them from looking foolish.


Anonymous said...

Did Mr. Brown, in fact, earn what he has, or did people in his employ do most of the work for which Mr. Brown was paid? Not knowing him or what business he is involved in, the question is meant to be rhetorical. But the fact is, since the working class makes up the overwhelming majority of the population, then (physically speaking) the working class must do the majority of the work necessary to create the wealth. Yet the wealth created is "redistributed" to the business owner, the business' investors, the upper management of the business, etc. How does that fit in with Mr. Brown's credo of "I earned it so I should get to keep it"? Who gets to make the rules of what is earned compared to amount of work done? Is that fair?

Samuel Wilson said...

Brown presumably accepts an economic system that allows him to think of workers as hirelings rather than obliging him to treat them as partners. What that tells us is that from the moment someone has an entrepreneurial idea, he separates himself from the working class and assumes an entitlement to subordinate them in return for pay.