Any parent or teacher has heard the cry: “It’s not fair!” It can be a battle over who gets to ride in the front seat, who gets to stay up late, or who gets anything perceived as a special privilege. “Fairness” to children means, “I should get what I want.” Apparently, it’s the same with politicians.
Daniel Hannan, Conservative Member of the European Parliament (and last year’s speaker at Acton’s Annual Dinner) tackles “fairness” in terms of politics at CapX. Hannan knows that the word is “elastic” – it has come to mean anything from equality to entitlement to need. In today’s political realm, Hannan says, “fairness” is whatever one needs it to be:
It is used, rather, as a way to signal the speaker’s virtue. “I believe in fairness” has come, in politics, to mean “I am a kind and compassionate human being”.
And that’s why, in the end, there is little purpose in free-marketeers trying to reclaim the word. There is no point arguing that it’s “unfair” for 16-year-old school leavers to have to pay taxes to support 23-year-old students; or “unfair” for our generation to sustain its living standard by borrowing from future generations; or “unfair” for people on low incomes to have to subsidise wealthy landowners through alternative energy rackets and the Common Agricultural Policy; or “unfair” for rich Luxembourg to be the single largest per capita net recipient of EU funds.
Because, in truth, “fairness” isn’t about policy at all. Rather, it’s a self-regarding advertisement of virtue, a signifier of narcissism. “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Fairness, it seems, is not about being just. It’s all about “me.”