American Fairness Means Equality of Opportunity, Not Income

In America we stand for equality. But for the large majority of us, this means equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

If you are like most Americans, you believe we all should start at more or less the same place with more or less the same opportunities to succeed in life. But you also believe that, within reason, it's perfectly all right if we end up in different places.

If you are in the 70 percent majority, you believe that everyone should get a chance to succeed. Or everyone should fail on his or her own merits. If this leads to income inequality--above some acceptable floor--so be it.

The intellectual and political leaders of the 30 percent coalition disagree. They prefer a world in which we all end up in roughly the same economic place regardless of our abilities and efforts.

Fairness should not be a 30 percent trump card but rather its Achilles' heel. Equality of income is not fair. It is distinctly unfair.

This fundamental difference in worldview leads to a major disagreement about the role of government. The majority believes government should protect the returns for hard work and merit. The 30 percent coalition effectively wants the government to penalize success. This is America's culture war in a nutshell.

The definition of fairness for those in the 30 percent coalition, fundamentally at odds with the worldview of the 70 percent majority, is a huge liability for them. They have concealed the central pillar of their ideology--income inequality--under a misleading definition of fairness.

They say one thing but mean another. The 70 percent majority needs to expose this fact and reclaim the language of fairness for the free enterprise system.

The 30 percent coalition is clever when it comes to redistribution. It would have you believe that income inequality is equivalent to equality in other areas, such as law or politics or religion. And because America, the world's first modern democracy, was founded on the principle of equality, its rhetoric can seem highly compelling if you don't think too deeply about it.

Legal equality, political equality, religious equality--almost all Americans would agree that these values are vital to our nation. But equality of income? That's a fundamentally different kind of equality.

We can all agree that everyone has an equal right to a fair trial, but we certainly don't all agree that everyone has a right to receive a verdict of "innocent." Only the innocent people deserve that.

Likewise, without our political system, we believe everyone has the right to vote, but we don't believe everyone has the right to see his or her chosen candidate elected to office.

This is what makes the 30 percent coalition's reliance on the rhetoric of "fairness" so duplicitous. It implies that equality of outcome is a core American principle, when in fact what Americans believe in is equality of opportunity and the potential to earn success.

It is easy to be intimidated by the rhetoric of "fairness." Nobody wants to sound anti-poor. It is no surprise, therefore, that many in the 70 percent majority have chosen just to cede to the 30 percent coalition the fairness issue and content themselves with making the case for economic efficiency.

Proponents of free enterprise must not make this mistake. Fairness should not be a 30 percent trump card but rather its Achilles' heel. Equality of income is not fair. It is distinctly unfair.

If you work harder than a coworker but are paid the same, that is unfair. If you save your money but still retire with the same pension as your spendthrift neighbor, that is unfair. And if you stay in your house and make the mortgage payments even when its value drops but your neighbor walks away without recourse, that is unfair.

Arthur C. Brooks is president of AEI.

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About the Author


Arthur C.
  • 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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