“It’s not fair!” The complaint has been made by children for as long as English has been spoken. Before then, kids were doubtless whining “Yt ys nat mete, forsoþe!” (or whatever the Middle English version was).
But if the phrase is an old one, its growing popularity among adults, especially Leftist politicians, is recent. The graph below, from Google Ngrams, shows the usage of the word “fairness” in British books since 1900. As you can see, the frequency holds pretty steady until around 1980 when it suddenly takes off.The beauty of the word, from the point of view of pundits and campaigners, is its elasticity. It can be used to denote a number of concepts that are not only different, but fundamentally opposed. Fairness can mean equality (the cake is sliced into identical portions); entitlement (you paid for half the cake, and Jane and I for a quarter each, so we’ll divide it accordingly); or need (Jane hasn’t eaten for two days, so she should get a bigger slice than either of us). Politicians use it to mean all three of these things, sometimes deliberately eliding them.
For example, there is a popular meme on the Left about chief executives paying less tax than their cleaners. Now we can all agree that, if this really does happen, it’s outrageous, but the grounds on which we object may be radically different. If the chief executive is evading tax, he should go to prison: that much, I hope, is common ground to all sides. But what if he is legally minimising his tax bill through some loophole created by a finance minister in pursuit of a good headline? In this instance, I’d say – indeed I did say on CapX last month – that the solution is lower, flatter, simpler taxes. But I don’t think this is what the politicians making a fuss mean. They want the chief executive to be paying a much higher rate than his cleaner. The word “fairness” allows them to conflate two very different positions: that everyone should pay the same rate, which eliminates tax avoidance, and results in the rich paying more; and that the rich should be taxed at a higher rate, which results in more avoidance and in the percentage of taxation paid by the rich falling.
Five years ago, in a paper for Policy Exchange, the economist Andrew Lilico argued that there are, in any case, many circumstances where “fairness” should be trumped by other considerations. He gives the examples of family (you’d save your own child from a burning building first rather than trying to work out whose child was most worthy of rescue); private property (you can buy a magazine from any newsagent you like, it’s not your job to spread your custom evenly); and contract (if you agreed to pay someone for a service, you can’t renege because you later decide she didn’t deserve it).
All this is true and important; but most of it, in our present political discourse, is beside the point. It’s beside the point because “fairness” isn’t really being used, these days, to signify proportionality, merit, equity, desert or even redistribution. It is used, rather, as a way to signal the speaker’s virtue. “I believe in fairness” has come, in politics, to mean “I am a kind and compassionate human being”. Similarly, “It’s not fair!” simply means “I disapprove of this” – as in, for example, the Lily Allen song of that name, where it means, roughly, “you are bad at sex”.
And that’s why, in the end, there is little purpose in free-marketeers trying to reclaim the word. There is no point arguing that it’s “unfair” for 16-year-old school leavers to have to pay taxes to support 23-year-old students; or “unfair” for our generation to sustain its living standard by borrowing from future generations; or “unfair” for people on low incomes to have to subsidise wealthy landowners through alternative energy rackets and the Common Agricultural Policy; or “unfair” for rich Luxembourg to be the single largest per capita net recipient of EU funds.
Because, in truth, “fairness” isn’t about policy at all. Rather, it’s a self-regarding advertisement of virtue, a signifier of narcissism. “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”