- Victor C. Bolles
The Unfairness of Fairness
At the recently concluded NATO Conference in Brussels, President Trump did a tour de force of performance art criticizing allies in public and shaming them for being so unfair to the United States. Only five of the 29 NATO members spend the obligatory 2% of GDP on defense while the United States spends around 3.5%, spending more for defending Europe than they do while Europe takes advantage of the US by running a huge trade surplus with the US.
Donald J. Trump✔@realDonaldTrump The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (U.S. has a $151 Billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through NATO, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn’t work!
1:52 PM - Jul 10, 2018
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When President Trump announced a press conference after a potentially contentious emergency meeting of NATO, everyone thought that he might announce the US withdrawal from the defense group. Instead he announced continued US support for NATO and praised the promised increased financial support for NATO to come from the European members. Another crisis solved. Of course, it was a crisis he created.
President Trump is very unpredictable. One wonders (at least I wonder) if he would actually do some of the crazy things he says he is considering. I actually think he would have broken up NATO if the Europeans hadn’t stepped up their defense spending. And he may yet if they don’t follow up on their promises.
Why? Because President Trump believes our current relationship with Europe is very unfair. He also thought the G-7 was unfair to the US. He believes that NAFTA is unfair to the US and threatens to scrap it if things aren’t changed. He thought the Trans-Pacific Partnership was unfair and withdrew from negotiations. In fact, if you think about it, practically all of President Trump’s policy initiatives are based on his sense of fairness. And his most ardent supporters agree with him about the unfairness of what is going on in America.
It is ironic. The most fervent adherents of the Trump Resistance are driven to paroxysms of outrage at the unfairness of his proposed policies. The core of the progressive left’s policies is the fight against unfairness. They fight against income inequality, unequal outcomes, the border wall. The only topic they agree with the administration about is President Trump’s tariffs because they agree that foreign trade has been unfair.
How can this be? How is it possible that two diametrically opposed factions that are so fiercely inimical against each other actually have the identical concept as their principal objective? Fairness.
The explanation is that fairness is subjective. Very subjective. It’s visceral. It’s instinctive. Our sense of fairness is honed in our infancy. It is an infantile response to a situation where reason would be better applied. It is why Trumpers and Never Trumpers are so ready to resort to violence to support their positions. Because reason and discussion have no place when fairness is involved. This is why President Trump would dump NATO and scrap NAFTA because they seem unfair even though reason would suggest that the problem is not that simple. This is also why the progressive left would abandon basic American principles of personal liberty and the free market economy in order to impose a "fair" distribution of income and wealth - even though all previous attempts to do so have failed miserably.
This is because fairness is not an appropriate standard for developing public policies. Whatever the policy, it will be fair to some and unfair to others. There is no Socratic ideal of fairness. In the past I have proposed the standard of “not too unfair” and, here, propose it again. Any public policy that is perceived as fair by some will be perceived as unfair by others. But all sides can agree that some public policies are not too unfair and that because of not being too unfair, they are acceptable. Not ideal, but acceptable.
Fairness resides in the gut, not the brain. When people feel they are being treated unfairly they don’t say “let’s discuss it”. They get angry, they get red in the face, their adrenaline starts pumping and their blood pressure rises. These are not conditions conducive to reaching a mutually agreeable result.
When asked to consider a proposal as to whether it is not too unfair, a person would say, “I need to think about that.” This moves the evaluation from the gut to the brain. The whole process of the advancement of civilization has been one of exchanging emotion for reason. Converting tribal vendettas into parliamentary discussions. The Enlightenment concept of the social contract and representative democracy is based on reason. And when America has not lived up to its Founding Principles it has been because of subjective emotion and not because of reason. The parlous state of twenty-first century politics is based on emotions stirred by striving for an impossible fairness. This emotion is dragging us into the gutter and not to the city on the hill.
If all the politicians of all stripes would strike the word fair and its impossible ideal from their policy proposals we might actually be able to discuss our problems civilly and come to an agreement.