Friday, July 13, 2012

What is Fairness?

Conservatives take issue with liberals when we argue for fairness in American economic, political, and social life. “Life isn’t fair,” they argue, with more vehemence than I think warranted, but conservatives can get pretty worked up over anything that sounds like socialism, and to them, everything we liberals say sounds like socialism. I think we liberals are partly at fault for this knee-jerk reaction on the part of our conservative friends, because we use the term “fair” too broadly.

So what is fairness? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) introduced a law in 1949 that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. News was to be presented in a manner that was, “honest, equitable and balanced.” The FCC doctrine is no longer with us (that should be obvious), but the words honest, equitable, and balanced constitute a good definition of “fair.” But when we liberals discuss fairness with our conservatives we sometimes misuse the term, or use it imprecisely.
Consider the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, for example. One of their rallying cries is, “We are the 99%.” The slogan refers to the income disparity in America, which has grown significantly since the late 1970s to the point today where the top 1% control 40% of wealth in the U.S. When liberals, who are largely sympathetic to the OWS activists, argue that this isn’t “fair,” conservatives are apt to call us socialists, or worse, communists, who want the state to dole out equal shares to all.

We liberals give conservatives the opportunity to construct this straw man by not being precise in what we’re saying. What we mean is that policy distortions that lead to inequality, such as unregulated or under-regulated financial institutions, the near monopoly power of too-big-to-fail, and preferential tax treatment for special interests, are bad for America. They’ve allowed unethical and even criminal enterprise, decimated the middle class, led to shrinking opportunities to realize the “American Dream,” resulted in a deteriorating infrastructure, and decreased overall economic efficiency. Clearly, this is a nuanced treatment of “fairness,” and in today’s political climate, nuance is rare.
"Corporations are people too, my friend"
On a related issue of fairness, voters, both liberals and even many conservatives I know, question the “fairness” of the unrestricted flow of cash to political parties, candidates, and their surrogates. This flood of money resulted from the 2010 Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court decided (5 to 4) that bans on corporate contributions were unconstitutional, or as Mitt Romney put it, “Corporations are people, too” (the ruling applies to unions and NGOs, as well). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, “The ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” In this sense, when we complain that campaign financing is no longer “fair,” what we mean is that they are not “balanced” -- they allow moneyed interests to wield disproportionate influence on both elections and the elected.
We depend on our elected officials to represent the people, all the people. And yet the median net worth of our congressional “representatives” is almost nine times the typical American household. Fully 250 members of congress are millionaires, and 57 have a net worth that puts them comfortably in the 1%.
The founding fathers, well read in history, and well versed in the literature of the French enlightenment and the philosophy of Descartes, Voltaire, Bacon, Locke and Hobbes concluded that successful republics required an equitable distribution of wealth.  They knew that where wealth concentrates, political power can never be democratically shared. They knew such a situation to be inherently unfair. And they knew what unfair meant.

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