“It’s not fair!”
This anguished cry reverberates loudly and with increasing frequency throughout our unfair land, its plangent peal echoing from the purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain — and every nook and cranny in-between.
Take one common example. The poor complain that it is not fair that they should pay so much in taxes while the rich do not pay their fair share; and the rich rage about the unfairness of their huge tax bills while the poor pay too little in taxes. The great majority, unfairly trapped somewhere in the sticky middle of the income web, bemoan their fragile backs breaking from the onerous burdens of the less than fair taxes they are forced to shoulder while the poor pay nothing and the rich pay even less. “It just isn’t fair!”
What is “fair”? (And the signification of the word “is” here is both predicative and ontological – Clinton actually did have a point on that one, as any student of ancient Greek philosophy will appreciate.)
But here, let’s listen in on the grasshopper, who has just called an important press conference and invited all the major print outlets and TV organizations to sit in on it.
“Is it fair,” he asks the incensed interviewers in high dudgeon, “that the ant should have so much and I should have so little? That the ant should have all that food and sit in the warmth of a big home – while I have nowhere to get out of the cold and not enough food to get through the winter? I ask you,” he says, wiping a tear in weepy self-pity over his wastrel summer — but in silent disregard of his personal complicity –, “is this really fair?”
Since the grasshopper got interviewed first, his views of fair and unfair have been widely disseminated across the land, and his views have become the normative — the politically correct – understanding in this momentous clash between a tettigoniid and a myrmecological Weltanschauung. The authorities, outraged at this appalling unfairness, quickly push through sumptuary legislation taxing excess profits, and on that fair basis alone they can fairly expropriate — and do expropriate — part of the ant’s wealth and home and give it to the unfairly situated grasshopper.
What if we had asked the ant first? Would her answer then be the normative one?
There is enough unfairness on this earth of ours to fill fifty-eleven black holes in all the galaxies beyond Andromeda. But can we have both freedom and equality (qua egalitarianism)? both freedom and fairness? These relationships are inversely proportional. Algebraically speaking, if y = freedom, x = fairness and z = equality, then y = 1/x and y = 1/z. In words, mathematically it is simply impossible to maximize x or z without minimizing y. (Reread the last three  sentences, work out the algebra, and think deeply about that!)
Now, whose task is it to minimize unfairness?
How can we know if we don’t know what fair means? Do you know what it means? can you define it abstractly, without reference to particulars – that is, can you give a Socratic definition rather than a mere instance of it? The word fair, or perhaps rather the concept, fuzzy as it is, seems in the last generation or so to have acquired protean meta-significations the precise lineaments of whose semantic shape at any given time and space in the phenomenological reality we all inhabit are strictly a function of the human or bureaucratic agent sketching it out. Its very rootless fluidity makes it as useful for some in some situations as it is perilous in others for others.
Legislating fairness is on my view not a good solution. The problem is that this just pushes the difficulty back one more level, so to speak, for it means that now some authority is going to be making decisions about what is fair and what is unfair. But an ‘authority’ is merely sleazy shorthand for other ‘human beings’, human beings who – let’s not kid ourselves — are just as fallible and just as uncertain about fairness as any other human being, like you or me. Of course the ‘authorities’ can and do wrap themselves in the (unfairly) exculpatory cloak of those eternal scoundrels, the burning need for confiscatory legislation and the will of the people (how many times have you heard – just today – the thunderously sincere appeal by this and that mind-reading pol to “What the American people really want”?).
You know, all of this has actually been tried already, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and we all know the rebarbative consequences of those sad efforts to translate into living, messy practice those crisp theoretical fantasy constructs about total fairness for all. Their story goes that the dictatorial proletariat got fairness (but of course they didn’t), and for sure, at least as I read that story, they didn’t get much freedom either. It is only in the clumsy democracies that we seem, fortunately, to avoid the worst of these excesses.
Life is just unfair.
That’s hardly original. But it bears repeating. And I am not heartless. But how fair is it that a few women are born breathlessly beautiful, most, average, and some, just plain dog ugly? that some children grow up as gnarled dwarfs, others, tall, stately, and comely? that some have an innate mental deficit that consigns them to menial and low-paying jobs, while others are super-bright and get Ph.D.s in computer science? that some have horrible genetic diseases and others don’t?
These are all conditions beyond anyone’s control, and I believe a decent society must attempt to ameliorate such inequalities to some degree – but with enormous caution. The good intentions of the well-meaning intellectual or the unaccountable bureaucrat can only too easily slip and slide and slither into the tyrant’s ukase or the despot’s diktat. But what about unfairness that is a result of conscious choices on the part of those now unfairly situated? Where is blame to be assigned, if at all? Should we even draw such distinctions?
I have no good answers. Maybe there are none. But I do think about these matters, and I still am not sure that I know, during this toxic 2012 campaign season, any more clearly what fair means than what rich means.