Winning the fight on 'fairness'

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President Obama speaks about the "Buffett Rule" at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., on April 10, 2012.

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Article Highlights

  • A growing number of conservative officials have begun contesting Obama’s claim to be the arbiter of what constitutes #fairness

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  • True fairness is not consistent with statist cronyism

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  • Defenders of free enterprise should remind Americans that a system rewarding merit, responsibility is a moral imperative

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For some months now, President Obama has increasingly been couching his rhetoric in the language of fairness.

He used the word “fair” 14 times in his December speech in Osawatomie, Kan., where he implored us to “restore fairness.” He demanded tax reform that “makes sure everybody pays their fair share.” And it is only his policy proposals that ensure “everyone engages in fair play and everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share.”

From his proposed tax hike on high-income households--the so-called “Buffett Rule”--to health care reform efforts, the president has defined fairness largely in terms of government income redistribution. He has also set out to paint his political opponents as, at best, uninterested in fairness and, at worst, committed to making society less fair.

For months, free-market policymakers seemed willing to concede this term, preferring to argue against Obama's policies on the grounds of economic efficiency and constitutional first principles.

"For months, free market policymakers seemed willing to concede this term, preferring to argue against Obama’s policies on the grounds of economic efficiency and constitutional first principles. No longer."

No longer. In recent weeks, a growing number of conservative elected officials have begun contesting Obama’s claim to be the arbiter of what constitutes fairness and taking the issue of fairness head on in public policy. This signals a subtle but significant shift in political rhetoric, and one with implications for the national debate in the coming months.

For months, free market policymakers seemed willing to concede this term, preferring to argue against Obama’s policies on the grounds of economic efficiency and constitutional first principles. No longer

Take, for instance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent floor speech on the effects that rising gasoline prices are having on American families. The first three-quarters of his remarks addressed domestic production and the effect of rising energy prices on the economy. These are topics one would expect from a Republican leader.

But the last part of McConnell’s remarks took on a different tone--one that suggests a newfound willingness to contest the president’s fairness narrative. “The president talks about fairness,” McConnell said. “But when it comes to rising gas prices, the American people don’t think it’s particularly fair that at a time when they’re struggling to fill up the tank, their own tax dollars are being used to subsidize failing solar companies of the President’s choosing.”

In other words, energy policy matters for fairness, not just economic efficiency. And true fairness is not consistent with statist cronyism.

McConnell is not the only one contesting the Left on fairness. Senator Jon Kyl recently spoke on the Senate floor giving free enterprise a robust defense--and using fairness as the yardstick against which it should be judged. “Free market capitalism,” Kyl said, “is the most fair system in the world-and the most moral. It is premised on voluntary transactions that make both sides happy by meeting their needs.”

Kyl rightly called out government’s picking of winners and losers, cronyism, bailouts, tax loopholes, and the idea of “too big to fail” as examples of unfairness.

Representatives Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and other leaders who take free enterprise seriously are comfortable making the ethical case for the system, placing true fairness at the center of their argument.

This view of fairness is part of what makes America unique. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote on American meritocracy, saying Americans were “contemptuous of the theory of permanent equality of wealth.” More prosaically, rock singer Bono once noted, “In America, you look at the mansion on the hill and think, ‘One day that will be me.’ In Ireland, people say, ‘One day, I’m going to get that bastard.’”

For the first time in many years, we are poised to have a great national political conversation not just on broad policy issues, but on our national values. Defenders of free enterprise should remind Americans that the choice of the system that rewards merit, promotes individual responsibility, and celebrates industry is not merely an economic decision. It is also a moral imperative.

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About the Author

 

Arthur C.
Brooks
  • Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

    Immediately before joining AEI, Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.

    Brooks is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics including the role of government, fairness, economic opportunity, happiness, and the morality of free enterprise. His latest book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (2012) was a New York Times bestseller. Among his earlier books are “Gross National Happiness” (2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (2008), and “Who Really Cares” (2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician in the United States and Spain.

    Brooks is a frequent guest on national television and radio talk shows and has been published widely in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Brooks has a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School. He also holds an M.A. in economics from Florida Atlantic University and a B.A. in economics from Thomas Edison State College.


    Follow Arthur Brooks on Twitter.

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