Fairness is overrated


As politicians are discovering, when fairness becomes their goal they become the arbitrator of everything that involves a transfer payment. Since they control half of the economy, that’s a BIG job. Political debate ends up revolving around “who ought to get what”.

This government-centric view is futile for achieving any agreeable outcomes, and in fact it actually damages any chance of resolving “unfairness”.

“Fairness” should really be called justice. Justice has a meaning and, crucially, can be tightly defined in terms of general rules based in the common law. Common law holds that takings of private property (which includes ideas and opinions) without due process are unjust. Equally, common law has established that coercive or harmful behaviour is unlawful. These two rules are nearly enough to govern relations between individuals. It’s not fair if they are broken.

Today, however, the term “social justice” is almost entirely related to the distribution of resources (income support payments) or positively constructed privileges (free TV licence fees) to those who are not productive enough to obtain them for themselves. These distributions are based on legally sanctioned takings – taxes – that pay for them. A democratic parliament can do this – as long as it has the consent of the people.

However, when such taxes become large, a new aspect of “fairness” – a genuine injustice, emerges. The takings themselves become harmful. And more, the attempt to design fairness today has a huge effect on fairness tomorrow.

Re-distributions destroy incentives. Tax the rich today and there will be less economic success to pay for the poor tomorrow. Spend on the poor today and there will be more poor children tomorrow who know how to work. Tax the middle today, and other middlers will step in and capture the beneficence of their fellow middlers in a mad merry go round of transfer payments. None of this is just. Whether they are perceived as “fair” depends on the eye of the beholder. None of them are any way to make a more properous tomorrow.

The Conservative Party should stop prattling on about creating “fairness” today. It’s time for them to talk about creating improvement tomorrow.