In politics we hear a lot of talk about “fairness”. We can have free trade but only so long as it is “fair” trade, instead of “cut-throat” competition we need a “fair” market, we must always play “fair.” Fairness is an important concept in a society but what we actually mean when we say that something should be “fair” can differ and that difference, even if its subtle, can mean the difference between justice and injustice in a society.
Fairness may refer to the idea that everyone should be treated equally. Everyone is treated the same under the law, justice is blind etc. But, often, fairness is also used to mean granting everyone the same probability of success. Often, politicians and others have both definitions in mind when they talk about fairness. The reality, however, is that we cannot treat everyone the same and grant everyone identical probabilities of success in life. These two definitions of fairness are mutually exclusive to one another, the reason being that we are not created equal, we are not raised equal and we simply can’t be given equal opportunities in all things over the course of our entire lives.
This view may seem contradictory to our very own Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal.” However, to understand what those words mean we must understand it in its context: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our founders never made such an asinine claim as that we are all created equal in regards to our biology: our physical health, our mental capacity and everything else that determines our talents and ability. No, we are created equal in regards to our rights. We are indeed very different in terms of utility but our souls are of infinite, and therefore equal, value, and that is why justice must be blind, that is why we all share the same universal rights.
Classical liberalist Ludwig von Mises recognized man’s natural inequality and pointed out that Karl Marx, a man on the complete opposite end of the political spectrum from himself, did as well: “Some surpass their fellow men in health and vigor, in brain and aptitudes, in energy and resolution and are therefore better fitted for the pursuit of earthly affairs than the rest of mankind — a fact that has also been admitted by Marx. He spoke of ‘the inequality of individual endowment and therefore productive capacity (Leistungsfähigkeit)’ as ‘natural privileges’ and of ‘the unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal).'”
Pope Leo XIII also readily recognized the inherent inequality between men: “There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition.” Here, Pope Leo XIII goes a step further and draws the logical conclusion from the observation that men are created unequal: that inequality of wealth among men is in accordance with Natural Law.
Our second definition of fairness, that all human beings be given an equal opportunity, with equal probabilities of success, is incompatible with this simple human reality of natural inequality. Some men are smarter, stronger or even just more fortunate than others. To attempt to “level the playing field” can only be accomplished by treating these men unequally as well: to prevent the fitter man from reaching his potential, by forcibly taking from him greater wealth and giving it to the less equipped man. Thus, by punishing people simply for being better endowed in life and rewarding others for their mediocrity does “fairness” become injustice and does tyranny ensue.
Conversely, treating all people equally under the law necessarily results in inequality. Believe it or not this is fair. It is fair because it is just: some men are more productive than others and, under a legal system that respects everyone’s rights equally and does not favor any special interest above the interests of everyone else, they will be rewarded according to their contributions. This actually ends up benefiting everyone. Mises put it thus, “Under capitalism the more gifted and more able have no means to profit from their superiority other than to serve to the best of their abilities the wishes of the majority of the less gifted.” When public policy is driven by Natural Law, when men are treated equally and rewarded according to their accomplishments, people are able to capitalize fully on their natural talents, to their benefit but also to the benefit of society as a whole. That is fair; that is justice.