Joe the Plumber and the Myth of Fairness

Life isn't fair, and we can't make it so.

"It's not fair!" is a common refrain I hear from my children.  My favorite response has been "No, it isn't fair.  Life isn't fair.  Life will never be fair. Get over it."  They don't like that response, but I figure it's my responsibility to teach them some of the realities of life.

I was not born with natural athletic ability.  I have a body that, while not in poor shape, wasn't made for modern sports and probably not ancient sports, either.  I've tried weight lifting and can't gain muscle mass very well although I do gain some strength.

I wasn't born with great teeth (so needed expensive dental work to get good teeth) or Hollywood good looks.  I'm relatively short, balding and if I were an actor would be doomed to character roles as a sidekick of sorts.  I wasn't treated fairly by life.  At least it seems that way.

But I was born in the United States of America to educated parents who wanted good things for me.  I've always lived in a nice home and even the worst apartment I've lived in is better than what the most of the world lives in for most of their lives.

I had opportunities for education and entrepreneurship at an early age.  I sold greeting cards door-to-door.  My mother still uses the clock radio I earned decades ago.  I worked my way through college, and thanks to federal government aid, I'm still paying off student loans.

The truth is, the happenstance of my birth gave me great blessings along with the unfairness.  Most of the world doesn't have the same opportunities I had.  Clearly, life isn't fair.

A great myth is that we must make things fair.  It's not fair that some people don't have this or that.  A home.  A job.  Wealth.  Food.  You name it, there is inequality.

We can't make life fair for the blind, the deaf, or for anyone born with disabilities.  We can't make life fair for those born short, or too tall.  The problem with wanting to make things "fair" is that the modern progressive movement equates "fairness" with "equality".

Any efforts to "level the playing field", or to make things fair, inevitably fail because you cannot correct most of the things that make life unfair.  I cannot be made taller or more athletic.  My friend Dave cannot be made to have good design sense.  He's doomed to buy whatever the interior decorator says is currently in style.

My son appears to have the genetic disposition to be even shorter than I am.  My nephew has food allergies and he won't ever enjoy a peanut butter sandwich.  A young women I know with a keen mind but a body born with several defects struggles to find friendship and love from the opposite sex.  Life will always be unfair.

In cases where the "unfairness" is clearly not the individual's fault, as with birth defects, we feel bad, have pity and wish we could do something.  I think most humans have a sense of altruistic desire to help those who clearly need it.  This is good.

Individually, we know we can't make life fair, but we can make it better.  Sometimes, we don't have the resources as individuals, but collectively we do.  When we band together to improve people's lives, miraculous and marvelous things can happen.

One example is the Habitat for Humanity program, a fantastic volunteer organization that does tremendous things without government help.  This organization can't remove the unfairness, but it does improve the circumstances of each family it helps.

Where we get into trouble is when we go from wanting to help our fellow citizens to being required to help them.  If I take money from my wallet and give to the needy, that's compassion.  If I'm compelled by force to take money and give it to the needy, no matter how worthy their cause, it's theft, but this is what governments do.

Government has no ability to make things fair although politicians promise "fairness" along with two chickens in every pot in order to get elected.  Laws are required to preserve liberty of life and property, but that is the extent of the government's ability to create "fairness."  Any efforts to "create" fairness creates unfairness someplace else - thus ending up with even more unfairness and ever-increasing resentment against whomever the government seems to favor.

Fairness cannot be created or even increased no matter how hard we try, and this is especially true about government attempts to do so.  Any grandmother will tell you that the best way to get your children to hate each other is to treat one of them better than then others; that's precisely the goal of affirmative action programs all over the world.

Philosophically, how do we know if the government gets it right when they make something "fair"?  Educators insist that home schoolers aren't getting a "fair" education because their parents can't show lots of state stamps and paperwork.  Yet, those same children routinely trounce any and every test result the public schools produce.

Progressives insist that the "rich" need to pay their fair share by creating minimum wages; we've pointed out that a poor person never hired anyone and that raising the costs of labor reduces the amount of labor being used or forces businesses to hire illegals.

Today we cry foul that there are so many without health insurance, never mind the laws that ensure high premiums for everyone who purchases health insurance.

In 1965 the Great Society program was established to eliminate poverty.  It's been over forty years and we've spent an enormous amount of money - with the result that the government tells us that there's more poverty than ever, conveniently ignoring the fact government rules lock people and their children into poverty.

Clearly, this is an example of the government getting it wrong in trying to make things fair.  Unconstitutional bureaucratic programs have been created to cover the realities of life with political smoke and mirrors.

End results sometimes dictate what is "fair", but what happens if you can't see the result for twenty years?  If the result ended up not producing something "fair", do we then expect the government to retroactively correct it?

Ever heard of Affirmative Action?  Thomas Sowell says it directly limited the rise of black progress.  Clarence Thomas thought it was a great stumbling block to his ability to succeed on his merits.  Even Michelle Obama felt she was at an Ivy League school only because she was black; this damaged her self-esteem.

Another concern of government over the last few decades is access to college for the poor.  Nobody wants a poor genius to be prevented from reaching his full potential because he can't afford MIT, so the government has established all manner of college aid programs.

But there is a correlation between the cost of post-secondary education and the amount of government aid available.  As more money was made available by the government, the more it cost to go to college.  Now, the middle classes are seeking aid because college costs have risen so much that nobody except the rich can afford it on their own.

Instead of truly increasing or equalizing access, student aid has simply made everyone - colleges and students alike - dependent on the government.  This attempt at making the cost of college fair has probably made it more unfair, since now everyone has to pay, through taxation, for college students other than themselves or their family.

The health care system is another example of "fairness".  Medicaid, Medicare and government intervention in the free market have messed with the free health care market so that health care is expensive for everybody.  It was thought unfair that poor people didn't necessarily have the same access (thought that's debatable) to health care, but now it's fair--it's expensive for everyone.

Financially, we can't make things fair, either.  I know people that have a quality that makes them successful at anything financial they try.  I also know people who financially fail miserably on a regular basis.

The modern progressive would take from the successful, making him unhappy, and give to the unsuccessful, leaving him feeling even more useless.  The eventual outcome of such an arrangement is the successful person will quit making an effort because his success is punished and the unsuccessful will remain unsuccessful because he has not the ability to be successful.  Misery is equally spread, and I suppose that might be one way of making things seem "fair."

"Joe the Plumber" dared ask a real question of fairness of Senator Obama.  He asked why his taxes were to go up if he were to buy a plumbing business and become successful.  The Senator's now-famous line about "spreading the wealth around" was telling.

Senator Obama clearly thinks that the way to a great society is to redistribute wealth; as a noted writer once put it, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

After this exchange, comparisons of Senator Obama to Robin Hood were made--and most got it wrong.  Robin Hood didn't steal from the rich and give to the poor, he stole from the corrupt government and returned it to the people it had made poor.

In this case, Senator McCain is more like Robin Hood than Senator Obama could be.  Unfortunately, "stole from the corrupt government" doesn't rhyme as well as "stole from the rich," so the legend has completely lost its proper meaning for most people.

Senators Obama and Biden keep speaking of the "rich" paying their fair share.  They talk about the inequalities of life and, quite nobly, want to fix them.

Unfortunately, they've chosen to believe that the government is the way to make things fair.  Many Republicans think the same way too.  Good intentions to be sure, but each government effort is another brick in this well-paved road to hell.

They've decided who's rich, and how much to take from them, and what amount to redistribute to others to "make things fair."  History and human nature teach us that life isn't fair.  There will always be rich and poor.  The genius of the American experiment is that you don't have to stay poor (or rich for that matter).

Using government to make things fair is a ill-advised myth. Or is it?  Maybe it is fair if we're all equally miserable.

Fennoman is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Fennoman or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
if we keep "bailing out" the free market, the government will make life all the more unfair for tax payers.
October 20, 2008 7:46 AM
You make several good points, but I think that the current state of taxation has often had the opposite effect. The many loopholes available to the wealthiest corporations in America often allow these companies to pay a lesser percentage of taxes than lower income individuals. The question is not if the government will rob from one group to subsidize another, it which direction the money will flow.
November 3, 2008 4:42 PM
I live in Canada, a semi-socilist country. I am glad that we have a society that believes in a basic existance for everybody. If I break a leg (as I just did recently) I will not starve or freeze to death in the streets because I am unable to work because of having a handicap during a recession. I have enough to survive because others pitch in through taxes, just as I also did in the many years previously while working, and will again when I heal, and the economy heals. It would be nice if my 'Christian neighbour' would directly give me the shirt off his back as the Bible says, but we live in an age where we ask the the government to act on our behalf, as our predominantly atheistic society has no official mandate to 'help one's neighbour'. We tithe to the government.
January 18, 2010 12:54 PM
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