Fair – The Word Most Abused by Politicians

Recently President Biden said that wealthy Americans need to pay their “fair share” of taxes. Hillary Clinton said the rich are not paying their “fair share.” At the time of his presidency, Barack Obama, wanted everyone to get a “fair shot.”

I have a problem with “fair.”

Imagine this scenario. A friend of mine (let’s call him Bob), and I are hiking in the park. Halfway through the hike Bob says he is hungry. I pull from my backpack a sandwich. We have one sandwich between two people. How can we fairly divide the sandwich?

I am a generous guy so I could split the sandwich in two and give half to Bob. That’s fair.

Bob is a nice guy, and he could give me $5 for half of the sandwich. That’s fair.

I ate a big breakfast and Bob was too busy for breakfast so I could give him three quarters of the sandwich. That’s fair.

I am one of those people who must eat on a regular basis, but Bob can go all day without eating so I could take three quarters of the sandwich. That’s fair.

While walking we came across a homeless person living in the park. We could give him the whole sandwich. That’s fair.

We could cut the sandwich into four pieces, eat one piece each now, and save one piece each for later. That’s fair.

We also came across an old dog that looked hungry, so we gave half the sandwich to the old dog, and we split the other half. That’s fair.

Are you beginning to see the problem with fair? Fair is not a measurable term. It is an opinion based on circumstances. Worse, while I have labeled all the various scenarios above as fair, there are people who could argue that any one of them is not fair and given the circumstances, they could be right.

Former President Obama stated that he became president because he saw what he calls the “basic bargain” of America slipping away. What is that basic bargain? That everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. I know Obama has not been in power for some time, but I think what he said well captures how many people think, so it’s worth examining.

First, who says that was the basic bargain of America? What does America stand for and what are its basic tenants? America has always stood for freedom from the tyranny of government or a ruling class, personal liberty to pursue the life of one’s choice, the opportunity that with hard work and sacrifice it is possible to increase one’s fortunes and the concept that citizens are treated equally under the law.

Let’s look at this concept of America, one phrase at a time. First, it states that everyone should get a fair shot. But what does “fair” mean? Fair is defined as “free from bias, dishonesty or injustice.” What does “shot” mean? In this context, shot means opportunity. So those who ascribe to this concept of what America means is that everyone gets an opportunity that is free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice. I don’t see anywhere in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or what America is commonly considered to stand for, anything that says, “everyone gets an opportunity that is free from bias, dishonesty or injustice.” Further, I would question how any government could deliver such a thing. And how do you define “opportunity”? The opportunity for what? What are the limitations on what opportunities are to be provided? Further, any law introduced by government to provide any type of opportunity is by its very nature going to be biased and may also be unjust. Therefore, it is not fair. And do we really want some government official, elected or appointed, determining what is fair and what is not fair?

Second, in this concept of America, everyone does their fair share. If we analysis this phrase, as previously noted, fair mean free from bias, dishonesty or injustice and share means an equitable portion. But equitable portion of what? We must assume the concept is talking about work (but it could mean fair share of thinking, eating, talking, playing sports, sleeping, or having sex—who knows?) So, what the statement really is saying is that everyone does their equitable portion of the work in a manner that is free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice. Again, no mention in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or even what America is commonly understood to stand for does it mention everyone doing their equitable portion of the work. Even if it did, how can you monitor that? Do the plumber and the opera singer both do “their fair share?” And how can the government force everyone to do their fair share? Get more than two people together working on a project, and chances are one of them is not going to do his or her fair share. The concept is both unmeasurable, and unenforceable.

Third, the concept wants everyone to play by the same rules. That phrase comes from sports, where to effectively judge the winner of a competition, everyone must be judged by, or adhere to, the same set of rules. Makes all the sense in the world when you’re playing bridge. But if you extend the concept to the complexities of an organized society, you must accept that it is impossible for everyone to play by the same rules. In fact, many laws passed by government set up a system of biases that ensure people are not playing by the same rules. Further, government’s selective enforcement of those rules further ensures that not everyone is playing by the same rules.

So, this concept of America has nothing to do with freedom from the tyranny of government, personal liberty or having the opportunity to work hard and sacrifice to better one’s fortunes. Instead, this concept of America is one where opportunities are organized in some fashion to ensure they are fair but in doing so by the very nature of those laws they are unfair, where work is organized in some fashion to ensure it is equitable, even though it cannot be measured or enforced, and where people do not play by the same rules but the government determines which rules each group gets to play by. And some people think all of that is “fair.”

I think everyone recognizes that we need some form of government. There are some things that it would be just too difficult for groups of citizens to organize independent of a formal organized governing body such as protecting borders, building major projects like bridges and dams, or negotiating international agreements with foreign entities. Of course, today there are a whole lot of things the government does that is should not do, but that is a discussion for another article.

Conceding that government is needed, the method of how we pay for it will never be fair, and for responsible people (those in government and those trying to be in government) to be screaming that their concept is fair, is ludicrous.

When the management team of a business wants to spend money, it convinces lenders, investors, and the board of directors that the money should be provided and spent, not because it is “fair” but because the project is worthy of spending the money on, due to its benefit to the organization. Perhaps those politicians should take the same approach.

I think I pay way too much in taxes. I don’t think they are fair. Yet I expect there are a lot of people like me who would pay more, understanding that taxes are not fair, if I believed in the efficacy of how the money would be spend. After all, six out of ten Americans give to charity and the average gift is between $2,000 and $3,000.

Maybe we should change the model. Instead of politicians screaming about everyone paying “their fair share” maybe they should present a plan or proposal, just like a business presents a plan or proposal, and we taxpayers can write checks to fund that project if we agree. Of course, that might make it much for difficult for those politicians to give kickbacks to their cronies, government contracts to their relatives and political supporters, and freebees to their voters.

But please, stop with the “fair.” I never want to hear that word from a politician’s mouth because what a politician really means by “fair” is whatever that politician wants or deems appropriate is “fair” and whatever I want or deem appropriate is “not fair.” And that’s not fair!