What is “fair” for one group of Americans””“I get to keep what I earn”””is not only different from what the other group means, it can often be totally contrary to it: “No, because you didn’t build that.” If I get to keep what I earn, then we are not spreading out the benefits of society equally; this would be deemed “unfair” by those who accept any version of egalitarian fairness. And if we were to take what people have earned through their hard work and spread it out equally among the entire population, some of whom may not have worked hard, then this would be deemed “unfair” by those who accept a merit-based view of fairness.
Often enough, this confusing bifurcation about what is “fair” is not only between two opposing camps, but within one and the same person. In some moods, we favor the egalitarian tendencies of fairness, while in other moods, we insist on the merit-based approach. We want “the poor” to be “taken care of” and to “get a fair shake.” But when someone proposes to raise our taxes to bring about a more equal distribution, we’re suddenly less excited about the prospect. This is why we respond positively to appeals to “tax the rich,” as long as the meaning of the term “rich” remains vague enough that it doesn’t include us.
Making the system “fairer,” therefore, has become another one of those slogans that can mean anything to anyone.
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