Fairness is a stylish word in politics this year. The President has set the tone, calling for an economy where everyone gets a “fair shot,” pays a “fair share” and is regulated to ensure “fair play.” Indeed, the Obama campaign is building a narrative that depends on one essential tenet: If you aren’t a liberal Democrat, your vision for America is a deeply unfair one.
For the most part, Republicans have ceded this territory to Democrats. The word “fairness” is usually invoked in conjunction with ominous references to “millionaires and billionaires” or “income inequality.” But a closer examination indicates that fairness is a principle routinely trampled by the liberals who invoke it most. If there is one message that conservative Republicans should emphasize to voters this year, it is that true fairness is the province of the right.
To understand this, you have to understand the conservative philosophy of equality. At the heart of conservatism is the belief that equal opportunity is more important than equal outcomes. In an equal-opportunity world, good outcomes are produced by determination, hard work and a little luck. In contrast, a world that values equal outcomes will ensure that everyone has equal wealth, regardless of whether they worked hard for it.
This unfairness shows itself prominently in the debate about tax policy. Among liberal politicians, “fair share” has become a common euphemism for “higher taxes.” Conveniently, the President and his comrades on the left neglect to define what exactly a “fair share” is, but we are assured that the “wealthy” aren’t paying it. There’s only one problem with this assertion — it’s not true.
According to the IRS, the top 1 percent of income earners paid 38 percent of all federal income taxes while earning only 20 percent of all income. The top 10 percent paid 70 percent of all taxes while earning only 45 percent of all income. In contrast, the bottom 50 percent of income earners earned 13 percent of all income but paid less than 3 percent of federal income taxes.
In the supposedly “unfair” status quo described by Obama, the wealthy pay a disproportionately large percentage of the tax burden, while the less-wealthy pay a disproportionately small percentage. These numbers apparently don’t deter the left from proposing tax raises that would distort the balance even more. As noted conservative Arthur Brooks observed, “If you think spreading money around by force seems like an odd definition of fairness, you’re not alone.”
And then there’s debt. At $15.3 trillion, the national debt now exceeds the total GDP of the American economy. And the debt is growing. The government is taking in approximately $1 trillion less than it is spending every year. One would think that in fairness to the younger generations, the President would at least have a plan to stop the bleeding. Aside from platitudes about mutual contribution and shared burdens, Mr. Obama has offered little. His plan to raise taxes on the wealthy would, by the most charitable estimates, raise over $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue by 2020. By that time we’ll be another $9 trillion in debt — if we maintain current spending levels, which Democrats are loath to do.
It seems that liberals are so committed to fiscal profligacy that they refuse to even consider reform. But the welfare state as currently constituted is unsustainable. That means that our generation will pay to sustain a broken system a little longer, but will never see the benefits of that system. Fair? Hardly.
And the list goes on. Is it fair that liberals support amnesty for illegal immigrants, punishing legal immigrants who waited patiently in line? Is it fair for liberals to support minimum-wage laws that keep young workers unemployed? Is it fair for liberals to suppress students’ freedom to choose between schools while trumpeting a mother’s freedom to choose to kill her defenseless unborn child? And can it be fair for liberals to prioritize criminals over their victims by shackling law enforcement and politicizing the legal system? For the left, fairness is a slogan, not a conviction.
In contrast, conservatism’s core values of equal opportunity, meritocracy and justice are natural progenitors of fairness. In a conservative world, people keep more of their hard-earned money and national solvency is an obligation to future generations. Life itself is sometimes unfair, and so conservatives support private charities which can help the needy without creating the scourge of lifelong dependency.
Perhaps it is whimsical to expect Americans to accept the narrative of fairness on the right rather than the left. But behind the facade of liberal fairness lurks a fundamentally unfair philosophy that prioritizes politics over people. It’s up to conservatives to expose it.
SAM HOEL is a student at the UC Davis School of Law and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.