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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Fairness Doctrine

The Economist just posted an article on Romney and Obama's use of "fairness" and questioned whether there was a valid philosophical difference in their use of the term. As opposed to one critic who said that Romney was just trying to steal and obfuscate the term.

I agree with the Economist writer. There is a valid debate here.

Obama speaks of closing tax loopholes for the super wealthy so they pay their fair share so we can fund housing, healthcare, education, social security for the less fortunate. Romney said it isn't fair when public service workers and other unionized workers get more pay than those who are unorganized and get more than what the market will bear, nor is it fair to pass on debt. Two very different concepts of fairness. One more focused on wealth inequality. The other more focused on market inequality.

Equality is a concept of the revolutions. The American stressed birth equality and "freedom and justice for all." The French egalité along with liberté stressed overcoming oppression. The Russian revolution stressed rule by the proletariat. All three were expressions of "class warfare," in the sense of overcoming the monarch, the aristocrats, and the czar.

As Hannah Arendt pointed out, while all three revolutions started out as expressions of political equality through American town hall assemblies, the French societés, and the Russian soviets, the latter two, overcome by the social question,were betrayed--as was the American in its institutionalization. "All power to the soviets" became all power to the Bolshevik party controlled government. The free societés were succeeded by the Terror and the Napoleonic empire. And the direct democracy town hall tradition was succeeded by representative government and the parties.

So we have a tension between political equality/fairness and economic equality/fairness with the economy dominating politics.  (See my previous blog.)

And in the economic realm, we have a tension between substance and process--wealth distribution and market freedom.  John Rawls in his Theory of Justice was a spokesperson for the notion of a social contract in which all institutions act with a "cloak of ignorance" as to who is benefitting.  All humans would have the same benefits and starting point.  This is the "liberal" notion of creating a society in which all have the basic necessities of life (living wage, shelter, healthcare, education, social security).  Government, as the instrument of fairness, should assist those who have been held back and left out including veterans who give up years of their life in war, the progeny of former slaves, formerly oppressed immigrants and refugees, the disabled, and children in poor families.

Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics are spokespersons for the "conservative" doctrine of equality of opportunity that removes the barriers of government regulation so that the free market can operate in a way that can be used by the most talented and assertive so that benefits will accrue to them and the market through increasing the wealth of all.  They demonstrate that the "redistributionist" approach actually retards economic growth to the detriment of all.  Government's role is not to ensure equality of wealth, but to protect the market locally and worldwide in order to encourage entrepreneurial and corporate activity.

Can these points of view be synthesized?  Probably not in their static belief systems.  But actually they have been synthesized in American pragmatic (i.e.non ideological) politics since Teddy Roosevelt if not before.

But today they seem to be polarized into a stalemate or gridlock with one side calling the other "vulture capitalists" or "nanny state socialists," and one party's stated priority to discredit the president over serving the nation and now a president no longer believing that compromise is possible.

I of course would like to synthesize these viewpoints in a new theory of ethics that would lead to a practice that does reconcile all these tensions in the notion of integrity. Can we have a really free market and at the same time make sure we all have the same starting point? Can we ensure that all people have the opportunity to the higher goods of civilization and associational power by ensuring that their basic life needs are not a major concern?

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