Andrew B. Wilson

As the third of seven children, I grew up in a family where fairness issues were constantly bubbling to the surface. It did us no good. Each of us pleaded in vain for relief from the unequal division of household chores and duties. And complain though we would, we could not stop the uneven distribution of presents or rewards. Our parents did more than reject complaints of unfairness; they were quick to condemn any display of self-pity.

“Life’s not supposed to be fair,” my father said. “Stop measuring,” my mother said. “You’re not supposed to measure.”

But this was before a new obsession in American political life: rising concern over the issue of fairness. Many people have started to measure – and they are plainly envious of the good fortune of others. To borrow the words of a Japanese proverb, they have come to think that the nail that stands up is the nail that should be hammered down.

That was the spirit of the Occupy movement – on Wall Street, in Oakland, and many places in between, including four Missouri cities. Those claiming to be the 99 percent railed incessantly against the 1 percent. In setting out to make a public nuisance of themselves, the pity-me protest brigades let the world know how fed up they are with the unfairness of life.

President Barack Obama has nursed and cultivated this same sense of grievance. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., he invoked fairness no fewer than 16 times. In one staccato burst, he called for “a tax code that makes sure everybody pays their fair share . . . (and) rebuilding the economy based on fair play, a fair shot and a fair share.”

How fair is that?

Let me put the question another way.

How fair is it to fritter away hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on green energy companies like Solyndra which have gone bankrupt?

How fair is it to launch a trillion dollar “stimulus” program that actually depressed the economy – leaving unemployment higher than it was before – and then turn around and demand a whole new stimulus program?

How fair is it to go on the greatest federal spending spree in modern history – quadrupling the size of the annual deficit and raising serious concerns about the creditworthiness of the United States – and then go about the country accusing critics of your profligacy as being solely concerned with promoting the interests of “millionaires and billionaires”?

How fair is it to use hard times to promote the politics of envy – when it is your own reckless rhetoric that has done so much to unsettle the business community and your own policies that have prevented a normal cyclic recovery from occurring?

The president and others calling for more “fairness” through bigger government and higher levels of spending seem to have little or no concern at how their policies and ideas are eroding economic and political freedoms.

  • They are calling for the government’s right to claim more of your income to spend any way the government sees fit (e.g., on silly “job creation” programs that wind up going bust and leaving taxpayers on the hook).
  • They are using “fairness” and allegations of corporate greed and irresponsibility in order to justify a vast expansion in regulation and government control over business and commerce.
  • And everywhere – including here in Missouri – they aim to enlarge the public sector, even though that drains money and jobs out of the private sector.

No one would pretend that the ultimate goal of free-market capitalism is equal outcomes for different people, regardless of talent, effort, or sheer luck. That is a socialist agenda. But neither is the free market – as our president suggests – a place where the rich prey ceaselessly upon the poor and “everyone is on their own.” That is an absurd caricature of free enterprise and more than 200 years of American history.

In fact, the essence of free-market capitalism is voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. People satisfy their own needs by competing to satisfy the needs of others.

My parents understood that. They expected their children to compete and enjoy the benefits of living in a country that has produced unparalleled wealth and opportunity for its people. But they did not want us to go about our lives with misplaced expectations of fairness – or to fall prey to the diseases of envy and self-pity.

Andrew B. Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.

About the Author

Andrew Wilson
Fellow and Senior Writer

A former foreign correspondent who spent four years in the Middle East and served as Business Week’s London bureau chief during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms as Britain’s prime minister, Andrew is a regular contributor to leading national publications, including the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal.