Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fairness or Freedom?

We all like fairness, right? "Mom, he/she got more than I did!" is a complaint heard from every child with a sibling. It's often said because of perceived injustice, as when a sibling really did get a larger amount of something. Most children with loving parents quickly learn how effective the "fairness" complaint is and try to extend it's use by altering its meaning: "Mom, I want more candy." "You can't have more candy, it will spoil your appetite for supper." Altogether now... "That's not fair!" Fairness is good, but not everything is a matter of fairness.

Suppose we try to use civil government to force fairness into society to the greatest extent possible. Is that a worthwhile goal for a nation? Well, what if maximum fairness means imposing the lowest common denominator on wages and wealth? Would you want comprehensive, forced economic equality if it meant you get exactly the same daily ration of food regardless of how hard you work or how much you learn?

Suppose our civil governments allow people maximum freedom instead, even if it means some people who learn more or work harder will earn greater wealth than others? Freedom and individuality have long been dominant in the United States and it's produced a level of wealth that was unimaginable when this country began. Yet free enterprise guarantees inequality of wealth.

So, if you were limited to these two choices, which would you chose? Forced economic equality that provided everyone a perfectly even distribution of goods, including exactly 1000 calories of exactly the same food per day, or complete freedom that resulted in economic disparity such that some people have as many calories of whatever food they want per day and the poorest have at least 1500 calories of food per day with a substantial variety of food choices?

Which is better, comprehensive forced fairness or universally superior wealth?

I suggest that fairness shouldn't be the ultimate goal of society because people are different. Men are different from women. That doesn't mean men are better than women, and it doesn't justify a lower salary for a women doing the same work as a man, but it's acknowledging the reality that there are substantive differences between men and women, and the cause is genetic. Industrious people are different from lazy people. An argument can be made that hard-working people are better than lazy people by some measures, and the cause for the difference is primarily behavioral choice. Healthy people are different from those with infirmities, and that could be due to genes or environment. The fact is that everyone is unique. The inference is that absolute fairness, or equality, is not possible. In every socialist country where great effort has been made to enforce fairness, it has been clearly seen in practice that the leaders "are more equal than others," as Orwell put it.

If you give everyone exactly the same health care, that means you must either give everyone a pacemaker or no one a pacemaker. Silly argument, right? That would be true, complete fairness, but that's not the only option to try to arrive at equality. Okay, so we use a different policy: everyone who needs a pacemaker can have a one if they want it. That sounds pretty good, right? Unless your society doesn't have enough pacemaker surgeons. Which leads to the question, how do you give a pacemaker to everyone who needs and wants one if there aren't enough pacemaker surgeons? Give the person a do-it-yourself kit? Or just let a civil government agency decide on everyone's careers, so they can ensure enough pacemaker surgeons? Do you want your career choice to be made for you? There are socialists who think that's the best course for public policy.

For myself, and for my family, my friends, and my neighbors, I prefer freedom to forced fairness. I'll learn as much as I can and work as hard as I can, and I want the opportunity to improve my financial circumstances. And I want that opportunity for everyone else.

It was President Kennedy who famously said, "A rising tide lifts all boats." He was talking about economic prosperity, not Cuba, but whenever I think of that speech in 1963, I tie the two together, thinking of the many boats people have used to try to escape from the prison camp known as Cuba, where fairness is guaranteed by Castro. Cubans risked their lives in desperate attempts to flee Cuba's fairness for American freedom. A freedom that has proven Kennedy's point, a freedom that has created so much wealth that American charitable giving makes the United States the most generous nation on Earth. In fact, America is more than twice as generous as the next most generous nation.

Fairness has its place, but if it comes down to a choice between fairness and freedom, give me freedom.

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