Fairness Is a Minor Virtue

Tibor R. Machan

Few ideas serve more wicked purposes than “fairness.” In public policy, it is probably the most overused justification for increasing the power of some people over others, for meddling in others’ private lives, and for being guiltlessly resentful.

Yes, there is some virtue to fairness, as when teachers grade and parents divide the dessert fairly. In short, fairness is a minor administrative virtue, handy once bigger issues like justice, liberty, and merit have been dealt with properly.

Unfortunately, the childish concern with whether one is being treated fairly by one’s superiors keeps preoccupying the minds of adults after they aren’t supposed to have superiors at all, after they have reached the age of their own reason. At that stage, they are supposed to worry about how to direct their own lives, not whether others are being fair to them. Yet, they keep saying things like “Life is unfair,” as if there were still some parent standing about assigning them tasks and distributing burdens and benefits. But the fact that some of us are too short for reaching the apples on the trees is not unfair, any more than it is unfair that some are too large to become jockeys, even if that is what we would really, really like to be. This is just life and has nothing to do with fairness versus unfairness.

Yet, thinking that fairness has something to do with such matters creates a powerful temptation to campaign for remedies—let’s get Congress, city hall, the welfare state, and so on to even things out for us all (except, of course, when it comes to the power it takes to become an equalizer). So, when some people are very pretty or much prettier—or richer, faster, or more talented—than others, they are resented for this (especially for the benefits that may come their way in consequence), and much too much effort is spent on creating that mythical “level playing field” so many public philosophers demand. This, as noted already, produces a class of folks who are genuinely unequal along the one axis over which equality should reign—namely, power over others. Of that, you see, no one ought to have more or less than anyone else, because, in the end, no one has the right to rule others past the time of childhood.

Someone I know reasonably well, the philosopher Paul Kurtz—a major leader of the secular humanist movement—has recently made much of the fact that some people who make a lot of money are not taxed “progressively” enough. (“Progressive taxation” means imposing a higher tax burden upon those who are wealthy!) Kurtz keeps insisting that, despite the objections of his libertarian pals, such a policy is only fair. The rich have more, so taking a lot more from them is fair, he thinks.

There is, of course, no end to the ambiguity and vagueness attendant on discussions about fairness. Some rich folks may well have more important responsibilities than some poorer ones and thus merit more dough. But never mind—there is no sensible measure of such unhinged fairness, period.

More important is the fact that, when it comes to being the victims of taxation—taxation being a relic of feudal times that now amounts to plain old extortion—the more who can escape, the better. That is how it was with military conscription. (Come to think of it, quite a few who understood this about the draft just don’t get it when the issue of taxation comes up!) Evil, vicious policies need to be stopped; short of that, they need to be escaped, dodged, and evaded. So, when the draft was in effect, it was a good thing to “unfairly” escape it.

Yes, Virginia, successful draft dodgers were right, and tax dodgers are as well. The rest of us are just unfortunate victims who aren’t managing to get out from under. There is nothing fair about subjecting us all to equal measures of villainy. Yet that is exactly what Professor Kurtz is promoting: “Tax them all, and those with more, tax even more!” That’s just bunk. Tax them none, I say—and, if the taxman cannot be stopped, do not condemn but instead applaud those who can skip out on this nasty scheme of extortion.

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University


Few ideas serve more wicked purposes than “fairness.” In public policy, it is probably the most overused justification for increasing the power of some people over others, for meddling in others’ private lives, and for being guiltlessly resentful. Yes, there is some virtue to fairness, as when teachers grade and parents divide the dessert fairly. …

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