We want a just and fair world. Whether it is a child whose sibling got a better toy or an adult who feels that someone cheated them in a transaction, we all seem to have an innate understanding of what is “right” or “wrong.” C.S. Lewis put it beautifully. “Whenever you find a man who says he doesn’t believe in a real right and wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He will break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him, he’ll be complaining, ‘It’s not fair’…”
Regardless of cultural, religious or social status, we inherently seem to crave justice. Of course, the depraved nature of humans rarely seems to allow for such balance. Consequently, we have built societies to help moderate activity and enforce the “rules” (of justice).
Often this seems to address the “negative” aspects of our nature. If you steal from me, you will go to jail. But what about the “positive” notions? If I take the risk to open a business and work hard, I should be able to keep the fruits of my labor. That certainly seems “fair” to me. In fact, this is the basis of capitalism and a free-market society.
This system is predicated on the notion not that we are all equal (a silly notion that one has only to look at the various sizes and shapes of human beings to understand), but that we all should have “equal opportunity” to put our talents to work for our own betterment (enrichment). And yet, some of that benefit is “taken” from us by various levels of government. How can that be “fair?”
There does seem to be some logic to it. If we are to enforce the rules (ideally encompassed in our laws), we must collectively provide the resources to do so. After all, it is not fair to ask the police or the military to protect our interests for free. If we all benefit form the service, we should all contribute. Makes perfect sense. I can even accept the fact that there is some additional charge to manage the system.
However, the government does more than this. It not only spends our (hard-earned) money for the “common good.” It redistributes some (much) of it to other people. In fact, our “progressive” (not really) income tax system runs on the theory that those who “make more” should “pay more.” Well, that seems understandable. But is it “fair?” Why should I work hard, risk my wealth to build something, if I am going to have to give a portion not only to those who may be in need, but also some who don’t (or won’t) work?
The notion of redistribution from the “haves” to the “have nots” is the very foundation of socialism. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Coined by Karl Marx, but it fundamentally encapsulates this alternative view of what is “fair.” There are generational wealth disparities and even laws (e.g., the former Jim Crow laws in the South) that allow some people to start ahead of others. How can there be equality of opportunity under such circumstances?
The intellectual debate was captured in the contrast of two 20th century philosophers: Robert Nozick and John Rawls. Nozick believed that justice is a notion embedded in a person’s unequivocal right to be entitled to gains that were rightfully (legally) acquired. If so, the government should not interfere. If one’s property is taken and distributed to people who did not earn or acquire it, it cannot be considered equal or free since it infringes on the rights of the owner. Capitalism.
On the other hand, Rawls believed in collective rather than individual justice. The system should not create an environment in which one person’s actions somehow disadvantage another. Thus, “social justice” can only be created by the collective effort of society. In practice, the government is the agent of redistribution of wealth to “level the playing field.” And, it must constantly be “releveled” because there will always be winners and losers that create the disparities. Socialism.
What is the relevance of these argument’s today? They are the foundation of the difference between conservatives (Nozick) and liberals/progressives (Rawls). In essence, both sides believe in fairness; albeit with different definitions. This leads to very different approaches that are (in the extreme) fundamentally incompatible. This is where the current political debate is stuck. We are focused on the extremes. That must change.
We are fixated on relieving the symptoms, not curing the disease. Perhaps if we drop back and speak not about policies, but about objectives. We must explicitly define what we mean by equal opportunity. Given that there are inevitable inequities currently built into the system (regardless of how they came about), how do we create a fair environment in which to compete?
First, both sides need to acknowledge that there are inequities, some systemic. For example, minority communities were methodically excluded from buying property in the mid 20th century, which removed their ability to accumulate the generational wealth that was afforded to others. The “system” created an environment in which a disadvantaged group that starts at a lower level. That was not fair.
However, we also need to admit that the “corrective” mechanisms are failures. Affirmative action does not promote the “best and the brightest” and has had the unintended consequence of creating another form of prejudice (the perception that someone didn’t earn their position) which casts a degree of disparity on even those who did. Reparations also appears to be a non-starter. There is simply no way to determine the degree of “harm” any individual may have inherited and payments may not be used to actually rectify the situation.
Perhaps in the end, our policy differences are simply irreconcilable. Yet our unwillingness to even have a rational dialogue certainly ensures that we will continue to be whip-sawed by alternating executive orders as the party in power flip-flops. There is one certainty: If we refuse to talk, the situation will continue to degrade, with possibly catastrophic outcomes.
Dave Clark is a Kingsport businessman and a former alderman.