I’ve been thinking a lot about fairness lately and what that word means in our current social and economic context. People like me who believe in free enterprise and effective but limited government are often tarred with accusations that we’re uncaring or indifferent to the plights of our fellow citizens who, for whatever reasons, aren’t getting a fair share of the American dream. I think that’s both biased and inaccurate for several reasons, some of which reflect of the “fairness” argument itself.
Fairness standards are inherently subjective and, at least in their more utopian strains, have a nasty habit of ignoring basic human nature and economic laws. Nobody shakes their fist and bemoans the unfairness of gravity because heavy things fall on people’s feet. If you drop something and it breaks your toe, that’s not unfair; it’s a predictable consequence of your actions.
And yet many people argue we should ignore the laws of economics because it’s unfair, for example, for some people to have more stuff than others. If some people do more, are blessed with natural advantages, or even are just luckier than others, they’ll probably end up with more stuff. We can argue all day about whether and to what degree that outcome is or isn’t fair, but it’s going to happen in any economic or social system that includes human beings. Wishing unfairness away will no more avert it than wishing that anvils float will keep your toes intact.
All too often at the intersection of fairness and facts we tend to wish away hard choices and tradeoffs. Central planning is a great example. The former Soviet Union and China famously had five year plans designed to match the wants and needs of millions or billions of people with the production capabilities of economies that in turn produced millions of products.
Those central planners wished away the simple and immutable economic principles of supply and demand, and the free market’s unique ability to balance desires and design. The result was starvation, bread lines, shoddy goods, gulags, and generations of wasted human potential. That might be fair in the sense that everyone outside the elite was more or less equal, but it was hardly fair in the sense of allowing people an opportunity to live fulfilling and happy lives.
So how does the fairness argument play out in Montana? To me, fairness means having rules that are predictable and that don’t arbitrarily discriminate, holding everybody equally accountable to those rules, and then allowing individuals to reap the consequences of their actions – both good and bad. In other words, the rules should not stand in the way of our opportunity to pursue happiness, but they by definition cannot be fair if they artificially guarantee success to certain favored groups, especially at someone else’s expense.
This state has traditionally been a land of opportunity, whether it was prospecting in Virginia City, homesteading in Glentana as my grandfather did, or escaping the suffocation of big city life. Over the years there have been decidedly unfair circumstances – the Copper King era comes to mind – but for the most part Montanans who invested their time, talents and luck have enjoyed reasonably unfettered pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately that’s changing in thoroughly predictable ways as more and more limits are placed on our ability to pursue and achieve success in our everyday lives. And it’s been a bipartisan effort.
Since 2000, state spending has increased by over fifty percent after inflation. Government at all levels is now the single largest employer in Montana. It used to be that we sent folks off to Helena or wherever with the expectation that they would look out for our interests. But now government has become an interest group in itself. It’s not a matter of nefarious intentions or bad people. It’s simply the predictable outcome of a growing self-perpetuating bureaucracy.
The result is that we have less ability to be responsible stewards of our own lands, businesses and lives. We have a government that too often works against us in perpetuating itself rather than for us in safeguarding our rights. We have the second lowest earnings per job in the country. And, according to both Forbes and CEO magazine surveys, we have by far the worst business and job creating climate in the region. Those outcomes weren’t planned, but they were predictable.
Free people making free decisions in a reasonably regulated free market: That’s fair, it’s productive, and it will result in the greatest good for the most people, with enough left over to maintain a safety net for those who need it. Balancing rights and values will always be challenging; but along the way we also have to respect the truths of human nature and basic economics. Otherwise we’re just wishing. And wishing is not a plan.