22 September 2011

Fair is Fair

What is fair?  John Rawls devoted a career to fairness as a political concept (even as he was notably less than fair in his private life I have heard).  It is clearly hard to pin down, and yet like Potter Stewart (or what is Byron White?) who could not define obscenity but knew it when he saw it, fairness is something even five year olds grasp in the negative.  They and we know when something it unfair.

The president has finally, in my opinion, grasped a solid moral handhold in the economic wrestling match over taxes and debts.  His commitment to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire rests on the idea of fairness. 

This fairness, though, is not financial but moral.  In a time when a nation must sacrifice current comforts in order regain strength in the future, everyone must be perceived to be giving up something that matters.  14 million citizens are searching for work and cannot find it.  More have simply stopped looking.  Almost one of five Americans are at or below the poverty level.  And many many more are making do by spending less because incomes are flat and the future is uncertain.  For some, though few, to be not only safe and sound but to be prospering as much as ever, appears to be unfair.

Thus to ask that those who have prospered also sacrifice - as those who are unemployed and uninsured and less secure because of reduced government programs to mitigate those struggles – seems eminently fair.  A nation that places the burdens of nationhood on some and the benefits on others is precisely the moral peril of slavery 150 years ago. 

“The[re] are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

That was Abraham Lincoln in October of 1858.  When 400 families have more wealth than 150,000,000 Americans (half the country) we either do not have a democracy or we do not have a country. 

I say America is a democracy or it is not America.  As all must share in the political task, so all must share in the economic task.  “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  Let those with eyes see, as the man said. 

Taxes, the Deficit and the Economy - NYTimes.com

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