We grow up in the family. We expect fairness from our parents. Fairness in the family means equality, tempered by some measure of “to each according to their needs”.
When we become adults, we enter a world of voluntary cooperation called society. The principles of society are summed up in two of the Ten Commandments. Do not kill. Do not steal. In other words, do not use force against anyone or their property. This gives us the freedom principle: that every person must be free to live their life as they like, using their talents and their belongings as they choose.
Some people quickly make the full transition from fair to free when they become adults. Many do not. For many, the childhood fairness principle is so powerfully fixed in the mind, that there is no room for thoughts of freedom.
Yet most of us live our lives by the principle of freedom. We expect to be allowed to live as we want and we leave others to do the same.
So we are an odd mix. We believe in fairness but we live freedom. That’s not a problem generally, because beliefs sit quietly in the back of our minds. But politics is the place where we talk about these beliefs. Talk leads to action and pretty soon we are making laws that ride roughshod over freedom in a charge toward fairness. Every step towards fairness is the loss of a bit of freedom. As Milton Friedman said, the society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither, whilst the society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.
We need to understand that economic fairness is only possible in a relationship like the parent-child relationship. To reach fairness in adult society, we would have to accept the role of children ruled by the parental state. This is just a short step away from the master-slave relationship, which everyone rejects. States that have pushed the idea of fairness furthest have become brutal masters, hated by their people.
Fairness is the right principle for us as children. I do not mean to imply that adults who continue to believe in economic fairness are immature. In their daily lives they are no doubt as adult as anyone else. My claim is simply that they apply in the political sphere a belief that has no place there.
The dream of fairness beyond the family is one of the driving ideas behind communism and socialism. At state level, communists in government have made a terrible mess of it, but in many freer states there have been some successful cooperatives and worker-owned firms. Anyone who wants to create businesses or voluntary communities based on ideas of economic fairness should be free to do so. But any attempt to force others to participate must be rejected, because force breaks the freedom principle, the glue of society.
Unfortunately, almost all government activity ends up forcing people to conform. Politics becomes a struggle about who will hold the levers of power, enabling them to force their will on everyone. Which political party wins doesn’t make a big difference, because all parties believe in using force to make people participate in their party’s programme.
A word on justice. Fairness in the context of civil and criminal law is the principle that everyone is governed by the same law. We are equal before the law. No-one is above the law. In the courts, fairness is justice. Many people take this meaning of fairness = justice and use it in talking about society outside the courts. But here it can only mean breaching the freedom principle.
John Rawls based his Theory of Justice on the idea that justice is fairness. In so doing he confused fairness in the family context (broadly meaning equal division of resources) with justice in the context of settling disputes (meaning same laws for all).
The idea of justice as fairness in society is labelled “social justice”. It leads to attempts to equalise differences, particularly of income or wealth. It also leads to discrimination against people who are perceived to have more than a ”fair share”. The term “social justice” is a contradiction, one of those linguistic tricks that tries to convince without persuading. Justice is equal treatment in the courts and by other arms of the law (police, etc). “Social” is about what is the good for society, which is the freedom principle, and this is breached by any attempt to equalise differences.
So my message in brief. Honour economic fairness in the family. Insist on legal fairness in the justice system. But recognise the freedom principle in society. Fairness has no meaning in a free adult society that rejects totalitarian government. Voluntary cooperation is the only moral basis for society. Freedom must come first.
Matt Taylor is an entrepreneur and an enthusiastic investor in UK private companies. In 2011, he founded Rockpool Investments, which has so far helped over 3,000 people invest alongside him. Inspired by Sowell’s Basic Economics, Matt is committed to spreading the ideas of freedom and spontaneous order as widely as possible.